— A Somerton mom and dad are in trouble with the law after enrolling their daughter in a Lower Moreland school.
Most responsible, loving parents would sacrifice anything to ensure a quality education for their child. But Somerton residents Hamlet and Olesia Garcia never imagined that sending their 5-year-old daughter to school could cost them their freedom.
The husband and wife now face the possibility of prison time for enrolling their little girl in a kindergarten class at Pine Road Elementary School in Huntingdon Valley last year.
Montgomery County authorities in August arrested the Philadelphia couple on felony theft charges, claiming that they falsified their daughter’s address to register her for the high-achieving suburban school. In doing so, they allegedly deprived the Lower Moreland School District of almost $11,000 in tuition.
The Garcias deny the allegations, insisting that the girl and her mother were living with relatives in the district last school year. But if they fail to make their case in court, the parents would be subject to the litany of criminal and legal sanctions usually reserved for high-profile white-collar fraudsters and violent offenders.
“I came from Cuba. There, they arrest you if you say something bad about the government, something bad about Castro,” Hamlet Garcia, 41, said. “[But] the government would applaud you if you’re getting your child a better education.”
“I never thought you could be criminally prosecuted for sending your child to school, no matter how it happened,” agreed Olesia Garcia, 33, a native of Ukraine.
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For years, the Garcias have lived on a small cul-de-sac near Tomlinson Road and Rennard Street. It’s about two blocks from the city’s boundary with Montgomery County. Early in 2011, however, the parents separated. Olesia Garcia contends that she moved into her father’s Huntingdon Valley home and brought the couple’s daughter with her.
(The Northeast Times is not publishing the girl’s name at the request of her parents.)
While separated last fall, the Garcias enrolled their daughter at Pine Road Elementary, which is about two blocks from where she and her mother were living at the time, according to the couple. The girl attended Pine Road Elementary throughout last school year.
“That was the nearest school. It’s walkable distance,” Olesia Garcia said. “It made sense for her to go there.”
Montgomery County authorities tell a different story.
According to criminal complaints against both parents, Lower Moreland schools Superintendent Marykay Feeley contacted Lower Moreland police last May to report a suspicion that neither the parents nor the daughter lived within the school district.
Months earlier, Olesia Garcia’s daughter had made a valentine for her parents in class. The school then mailed the greeting to the girl’s home of record. Olesia Garcia’s stepmother received the valentine and notified the school that the neither the little girl nor her parents lived there.
In turn, the district assigned a private investigator to place the family under surveillance. On four mornings in April, the investigator allegedly watched the Huntingdon Valley house but saw no sign of the Garcias or their daughter. However, Hamlet Garcia allegedly drove his daughter to school on those dates.
In follow-up interviews with police, Olesia Garcia’s father, stepmother and siblings allegedly told varying, sometimes contradictory stories about whether Olesia Garcia and her daughter lived in the Huntingdon Valley home during the time in question.
On Aug. 30, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office charged the Garcias with theft of services and conspiracy. Both counts rise to felony status because the value of the alleged theft was more than $2,000. At the time, the school district was spending $58.97 per day to educate each Pine Road student, or $10,752.81 annually per student.
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District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman described so-called “education fraud” as an issue in many Montgomery County schools. But it leads to arrests only in rare cases.
“We haven’t had many [arrests] over the years,” Ferman said, citing a 2003 case in the Plymouth Meeting-based Colonial School District, along with other past cases in the Cheltenham and Lower Merion districts.
Similar cases have been reported across the United States.
Last November, according to The Washington Post, one Maryland mother was sentenced to four years probation for using a false address to enroll a child in a District of Columbia school. The Post also reported that an Akron, Ohio, woman was sentenced to five years in prison for using her father’s address to enroll her children in what she considered “better and safer” schools. A judge suspended the sentence after the woman served nine days in jail.
The Garcias, if convicted, would face prison sentences of up to 12 months for each count of the two counts under Pennsylvania law.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney John Walko, said during a September interview broadcast on 1210-AM WPHT, “We don’t anticipate this being a jail time case, just because the nature of the charges.”
But felony convictions carry other enduring legal sanctions. The Garcias — who have reconciled and live together in Philadelphia — could be disqualified from voting, possessing firearms or serving on a jury. Olesia Garcia is an independent insurance agent and fears she could lose her professional license and livelihood. Hamlet Garcia works in his wife’s agency.
Both parents are now U.S. citizens, so immigration issues are not a concern. But criminal records could jeopardize their potential for future employment in other fields.
“A felony conviction is devastating to people,” said the Garcias’ defense attorney, Michael Cassidy.
Hamlet Garcia thinks the possible consequences are too harsh for a hard-working and otherwise law-abiding family.
“I am an American. I love this country. I’ve lived here for over twenty years and never had a problem with the police,” he said.
“This is the first time I’m experiencing this,” Olesia Garcia said.
The Garcias are scheduled for a preliminary hearing before a magistrate judge on Nov. 8.
Ferman, the DA, and Feeley, the school superintendent, contend that efforts were made to resolve the case without the criminal court’s involvement. Arrest is considered a “last resort,” Ferman said.
Feeley declined to discuss specifics of the case, preferring to speak in general terms. Instances of non-resident students have become more common in recent years.
“On a yearly basis, there might be ten cases or more, and this case has been the first time we actually turned it over to the township police department to try to get it resolved,” Feeley said.
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Enrollment growth has become a district-wide issue in Lower Moreland. There are about 2,200 students in the district’s three schools, reflecting a 31 percent growth in the last decade.
Until two years ago, Pine Road enrolled students from kindergarten through third grade. Then the district built 30 new classrooms and added fourth and fifth grades. Now, the school has 909 students and a designed capacity for 925, Feeley said.
Non-classroom spaces could be converted to increase capacity to 1,060. But in any case, the district is not disposed to accommodate non-residents.
Academically, Pine Road and the Lower Moreland district as a whole are in the upper echelon of public schools statewide. In the latest standardized testing data, 93 percent of Pine Road students are considered proficient or better at math, while 87 percent are proficient or better at reading.
Students at the Garcias’ local Philadelphia public school, Loesche Elementary, scored at 85 and 71 percent proficiency rates, respectively, in the same categories. The Garcias now send their daughter to a private school in Bucks County.
Feeley and the Garcias agree that they participated in several face-to-face meetings about the residency question before criminal charges were brought, but their accounts of the meetings are very different.
The Garcias say they offered to pay last year’s education costs for their daughter and to continue paying the district for the new school year, hoping to keep their daughter at Pine Road. The district refused to accept that arrangement, Hamlet Garcia claims.
“They have never presented me with a bill to pay tuition,” he said. “I asked them to bring me a bill.”
“They understand it might be their responsibility to pay tuition and they continue to be ready and willing to pay it,” Cassidy said.
The money is important to the school district, but there are other principles at stake, according to Feeley.
“We’re hoping that they will be honest,” the superintendent said. “Honesty and cooperation, that’s the end goal.” ••