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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : Some Schools Called Lax on Residency : Audit released by lieutenant governor candidate Gray Davis says six border districts are doing an inadequate job of verifying students' eligibility. A spokesman for his opponent, Cathie Wright, accuses him of playing politics with the report.


SACRAMENTO — Six public school districts near the border have done an inadequate job of verifying the residency of their students, in one case apparently admitting hundreds of youngsters who cross over each day from Mexico, according to a series of audits by state Controller Gray Davis.

In releasing the reports this week, Davis stressed that the issue was California residency, not citizenship. State law, he said, requires districts to verify residency of all students and to collect tuition from those residing out of state, whether they come "from Nevada, Oregon--or Mexico."

In addition to checking school district files, auditors reported observing hundreds of youngsters who legally crossed the border at San Ysidro and boarded northbound trolleys. They were able to track 200 students to California public schools, most of them high schools or junior highs in the Sweetwater Union High School District.

But officials with the school districts argued that they are doing their best to comply with state laws on residency but that there are no clear rules on what procedures they must follow.

One superintendent, Libia S. Gil of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, questioned the timing of Davis' release of the audits, less than a week before an election in which Davis is running for lieutenant governor.

"What would raise a lot of questions is the timing of all this, just a couple of days before election," Gil said, pointing out that the auditors completed their reviews in July.

A spokesman for state Sen. Cathie Wright of Simi Valley, Davis' Republican opponent, accuses the controller of delaying the audits in response to pressure from Latino lawmakers--only to move ahead later for political advantage.

"Here it is five days before an election and he's using this in the eleventh hour to say, 'This is what I've done,' which is vintage Gray Davis," said Wright campaign spokesman John Theiss. "Once again Davis is using his office to gain higher office."

The latest audits are the result of allegations made a year ago by Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway), whose staff videotaped youngsters crossing the Tecate border and boarding buses headed for the Mountain Empire Unified School District. In a March report, auditors said they identified 261 students in the 2,400-student district who did not live at the addresses listed in their files.

Davis' staff alerted other border districts that they would soon be audited. But Latino legislators objected, and Davis backed down, citing prohibitive costs. He moved ahead when a bipartisan group of lawmakers from San Diego urged him to conduct the additional audits.

In addition to Sweetwater and Chula Vista, the auditors inspected records at the San Ysidro Elementary School District, Grossmont Union High School District, Amul-Dulzura Union Elementary School District and South Bay Union School District.

In written responses, administrators from all six districts acknowledged problems in verifying student residency. All say that their districts routinely checked on new students. But until this year, most of the districts did not require documentation from returning students. All say they have begun correcting the deficiencies cited in the reports.

Some school officials were critical of the auditors for conducting an unscientific survey and then reaching conclusions not justified by the facts.

"We first of all acknowledge that there are students coming across the border on a daily basis," said Superintendent John Rindone of the 28,000-student Sweetwater district. "The question is the legality--whether or not they are supposed to be in our schools."

Rindone and administrators from other districts say it is possible for students crossing the border to be legal residents of a California district, with homes and family in both countries.

South Bay Union Superintendent Larry Acheatel said his district changed its residency documentation procedures months before the auditors arrived, but added that the system is not foolproof.

"We have 10,000 students in this district," he said. "If we're expected to follow each one home and go to each address submitted to us, either the state of California has to provide us more resources to do that . . . or come up with specific guidelines on what we are required to do."

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