Phila. parents make deal over enrollment in suburban school

Hamlet and Olesia Garcia talk to reporters after the deal was set. CAROLYN DAVIS / Staff
Hamlet and Olesia Garcia talk to reporters after the deal was set. CAROLYN DAVIS / Staff
Posted: January 30, 2014

A case that became a national cause célèbre for public school choice ended Tuesday in Montgomery County Court with lesser charges, dismissed charges, and a restitution agreement. But there was no jail time for the mother and father of a child who attended a Lower Moreland school even though they lived in Philadelphia.

"I admit I unlawfully enrolled my child in the Lower Moreland School District," Hamlet Garcia, 42, told Judge Garrett D. Page after pleading guilty to a lesser charge that averted a trial and a possible prison sentence if a jury had convicted him.

"Even though you might want better schools," Page told Garcia, "you can't rip off the taxpayers" who finance the public education system in Lower Moreland.

In May 2012, Marykay Feeley, superintendent of the Lower Moreland Township School District, told township police that Hamlet Garcia and his wife, Olesia, were "fraudulently using" a local address so that their kindergarten-age daughter could attend Pine Road Elementary School. Feeley made the police report after getting a call from the girl's stepgrandmother, who said she had been receiving mail for the Garcias even though they did not live there.

The Garcias insisted that when they enrolled her at the school, their daughter and Olesia Garcia were living with Olesia Garcia's father and stepmother in Huntingdon Valley because of marital problems.

But a police investigation found no evidence they ever resided in Lower Moreland, according to the criminal complaint.

On Tuesday, Page and lawyers for both sides spent the morning discussing motions in the case, which would have been followed by jury selection and opening arguments.

Before breaking to attend a funeral, Page urged the sides to work out a deal.

They did just that.

The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office and defense lawyers agreed to drop one felony count of theft of services and one of conspiracy against Hamlet Garcia. That was in exchange for his pleading guilty to a summary-offense violation of the Pennsylvania public-school code provision making it illegal to provide false information on documents to enroll a child in a school district the child is ineligible to attend.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the same two felony charges against Olesia Garcia, 34. A misdemeanor charge against the grandfather of the child, Grigori Sofitchouk, 54, of Lower Moreland, was reduced to a summary offense of the state school code.

Hamlet Garcia and Sofitchouk must pay the school district $10,752.81 to cover the cost of the time the girl attended class there, $600 in court costs, and a $100 fine.

The Garcias became the center of a campaign that went far beyond the Philadelphia region, with news conferences picked up by national outlets, an online petition signed by more than 1,200 people, and support from national school-choice organizations, Latino celebrities, advocacy groups representing parents in Connecticut and New York City, and others.

In the courtroom Tuesday, one of the family's supporters cried after the deal was announced. She had wanted the Garcias exonerated of all charges.

Gloria Romeo, a former California state senator who dealt with similar issues, flew in for the expected trial. Afterward, she said, "The vindication is, the prosecutors overcharged from the beginning. It never had to get this far."

The Garcias and their supporters contend they always had offered to pay the district the cost of the schooling.

Hamlet Garcia never offered to pay restitution, said Deputy District Attorney Steven Latzer, and would not acknowledge he had done anything illegal.

"Today, he is finally admitting it," Latzer said.

Because of the case's circumstances, which included more than just falsely filling out forms, prosecutors pursued the felony charges, Latzer said.

Despite what he said to the judge, outside the courtroom Garcia told reporters he still believed his daughter was "legally eligible" to attend the school because she and her mother were living in Lower Moreland at the time the girl enrolled.

"I'm not 100 percent happy with the result today," Garcia said. "No family should face seven years in jail, not even one day in jail," for trying to get their child a good education.

Latzer said that the Garcias should talk with legislators in Harrisburg rather than violate the law if they wanted to prohibit tougher criminal charges against parents who sought to enroll children in school districts outside their residency. The Garcias' daughter, now 7, attends a private school in Bucks County, a defense lawyer said.



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