The state Attorney General’s Office has called for the Oyster Bay-East Norwich school district to suspend student re-registration requirements that, among other things, threaten a fine of $20,000 if families with children in the system were found to be nonresidents.
The Attorney General's Office “has serious concerns that the Oyster Bay-East [Norwich] Central School District’s revised district policy 7130 on school admissions violates New York law, its implementing regulations, and guidance issued by the New York State Education Department,” wrote Jessica Clarke, the office’s civil rights bureau chief, in a Feb. 28 letter to the district.
The attorney general’s involvement follows a Newsday report about elements of the district’s re-registration forms that went beyond provisions of the state Department of Education’s guidelines.
Clarke said the district had until Friday to notify families via mail and on the district’s website, in English and Spanish, that the policy is no longer in effect. The district has until March 13 to issue a new policy.
“In compliance with a request from the New York State Attorney General’s Office, the Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution to suspend the registration/residency verification process,” Laura Seinfeld, the district superintendent, wrote in a letter Thursday posted on the district's website and sent to parents.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's spokesperson, Jason Conwall, said in a statement that the governor's office was "deeply troubled" to read the news report of the district's residency forms and "will monitor the district’s activities and take action against them, if necessary."
Seinfeld had sent letters home in January informing parents of a new policy that required all families to re-register using new residency verification forms. But state regulations don’t permit mandatory districtwide re-registration. Such policies are “unlawful and/or have had a disparate impact on unaccompanied minors and undocumented youth,” the Education Department wrote to superintendents in 2018.
The Oyster Bay district’s forms also obliged property owners to disclose the names and birth dates of everyone living at a residence, not just of the family registering the student, and to certify they were complying with the town’s housing code. Seinfeld did not answer how those requests would help the district determine if a registrant was a resident.
The forms further required families to register in person only, on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. starting Feb. 3. All registrants also had to submit notarized affidavits, including a deed, tax bill or closing statement, as well as a driver’s license or car registration, documents issued by government agencies with an address, and a current pay stub with an address.
The Attorney General’s Office deemed each of those requests as “onerous and troubling requirements on parents, guardians, and third-party owners and landlords,” Clarke said in the letter.
It was unclear Thursday if the district could ask families to consent to unannounced home visits, an element of the registration form that was not directly addressed in Clarke’s letter.
Last month, Oyster Bay Town Board Councilman Lou Imbroto said the school district shares information from residency forms with the town, specifically when multiple students are registering using the same address.
On Thursday, when asked if that practice would continue, town spokeswoman Marta Kane said, "Yes, our cooperation with the school district is ongoing."
A parent at a town board meeting in the fall urged the board to work with the schools to identify overcrowded dwellings. But other parents said they feel the district should not be helping the town in those efforts.
“This was clearly someone’s pet project to root out illegal housing and nothing to do with residency verification by asking who lives in your house,” said Bryan O’Neill, an Oyster Bay resident with a child in the district. “I am still amazed that they would have every parent in the district running around getting forms notarized and showing up in person with original documents.”
Some parents said the district’s requests targeted a growing Latino population in Oyster Bay.
“We do have a decent number of students who come from families in which English is a second language, and I think these onerous requests were targeting those families,” said Stephanie Augustine, an Oyster Bay resident of 20 years.
Latinos have been the largest racial minority group in the predominantly white district since at least 2000-01, according to state data. Latinos made up 12% of the district population 20 years ago, and grew to 21% in 2016-17, according to the latest state data.
Under state law, anyone over the age of 5 and under 21 who doesn’t have a high school diploma can attend a public school in the district in which they live, and the “undocumented or noncitizen status of a student [or his or her parent or guardian] is irrelevant to such student’s entitlement to an elementary and secondary public education.”
“We believe diversity is New York's greatest strength and are deeply troubled by these reports,” Conwall said, referring to the Newsday article and subsequent report from News 12 Long Island. “The district's original approach reeks of discrimination that no child should have to experience.”
Conwall said Cuomo is committed to protecting the rights of all children regardless of race, gender or where their parents are from “to be educated in a safe and supportive environment.”