Tough lesson

— A Somer­ton mom and dad are in trouble with the law after en­rolling their daugh­ter in a Lower Mo­re­land school.

Olesia (right) and Ham­let Gar­cia are shocked that they were ar­res­ted for theft and fraud after of­fer­ing to pay Lower Mo­re­land grade school sev­er­al times for their daugh­ter’s edu­ca­tion, but were turned away by the board of edu­ca­tion due to their daugh­ter’s ad­dress. (Maria Pouch­nikova)


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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.” ••


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