State School Superintendent Tom Horne is seeking $1.2 million from the Ajo School District after an audit found that it illegally enrolled Mexican students as Arizona residents.
The audit findings released Tuesday analyzed 269 open-enrollment students for the last three fiscal years and found that 231 did not meet Arizona residency requirements, resulting in over- funding from the state.
"The issue here is not citizenship or documentation, but residency," Horne said in a news release. "Each morning, children cross the border and take buses to the public schools in Ajo where they have been educated at the expense of Arizona taxpayers."
The Ajo School District requires students to provide documentation of residency but failed to exercise sufficient due diligence in determining residency for the students, according to the audit.
However, Ajo School District Superintendent Robert Dooley does not feel that is the case.
"The administration and the school board want to comply with Arizona law," he said. "We have plans to appeal and to work with the Arizona Department of Education to mitigate their claims."
Students were enrolling in school by claiming residency in uninhabitable trailers, vacant RV spaces and an abandoned motel in Lukeville, the audit showed.
In other instances, Arizona residents were asked to serve as guardians for Mexican children in order to enroll them in school.
Dooley said he isn't fully convinced that the audit proves that the students didn't live at those residences when they enrolled, saying the students could have moved and not filed a change of address.
Still, the school district is working off the list provided by the Department of Education and asking those students to provide additional proof of residence, Dooley said.
If a student cannot provide adequate proof, he or she will be removed from the district. Dooley is concerned that there will be an impact on student attendance in the days to come.
Horne has been focused on this issue for years, utilizing investigators to videotape students crossing the border at the Lukeville port of entry and boarding buses to Ajo schools. The school district has about 500 students, according to the state.
Most recently, auditors videotaped at least 13 vehicles with as many as four children each and at least 27 pedestrian students crossing the border on March 10.
In the future, Dooley says, the district plans to follow the audit recommendation to request more proof of residency from all children, including rent receipts, utility receipts, drivers licenses and bank statements.
"We've been careful to not hold one group of students to a more severe residency test than others," Dooley said.
The district is unable to send a staffer to physically check addresses provided by students who live out of the district as it would not be cost-effective, Dooley said.
The audit recommended that if the district wants to allow students who are not Arizona residents to enroll, it should adopt reasonable tuition.
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Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or firstname.lastname@example.org