Leesburg -- If your kids attend Lee County schools, but don't live in the county, be prepared-- they're about to be kicked out.
Lee County is cracking down on people who lie about their addresses and send their children to school there. Tough new residency requirements mean every child in the system will have to provide proof of residency this year, regardless of how long they've attended the schools.
Lee County is known for its high performing schools. In fact, the school system is the main reason the county is one of the fastest growing in the nation. Nearly 5,700 students attend the system's six schools, and it's getting crowded.
That's why the only students they want showing up to class are students whose parents are paying the bills.
"It never ceases to amaze me the lengths people will go to," said Lisa Bailey, a school system social worker who is shocked at what parents will do just to get their children into Lee County Schools. "They do a number of things, they try to rent places and allow other people to live there to try and have something in their name.," said Bailey. "They move in with other people and try to use that as their residence. There are numerous things that people do to try and get their children in the school here."
She says parents will lie, cheat and swear to steal a Lee County education-- actions that don't set a very good example. "Remember that you're teaching your children life lessons and if your life lesson is to lie, then, unfortunately it's not going to be a good one."
And, by the way, if you choose to lie, they'll catch you. The system is requiring all students, new and returning to prove where they live. "Updated proof of residence, along with a certificate of residence, just a formal proclamation that this is my address and these are the people who reside in that household," said Kevin Dowling, Lee Co. High Principal.
Dowling says he has close to 1,800 students in a school built for about 1200, and they're dealing with crowding the best they can. "We have a good school system and we have a lot of people that want to be a part of it, and that's great. That's a wonderful, wonderful thing to have, and it's a wonderful problem to have."
But Bailey says it's not one that should be the burden of Lee County taxpayers. "The taxpayer. The taxpayers are the ones who help support the schools. You have to be a resident. We are not a school system that allows people to attend here based on tuition."
And students who submit incorrect or fraudulent paperwork, will have to leave. "We will immediately start the withdrawal process. You have to live in this county to attend this school system," said Dowling.
As with any rule, there are exceptions: Children of system employees can attend if there is available space, and if they pay tuition. Children placed by DFACS or juvenile services may attend and homeless children can also enroll. The school system will likely require students to update their residency status every year.
They say they also try to work with families who move out of county in the middle of the semester or near the end of a school year, provided they are honest about situation.