A Question of Residency
Narragansett is consistently ranked as one of the top public high schools in Rhode Island. So why are three children of a town council leader in a community 45 minutes away going to class there? This week Jim Hummel asks the council member that question and finds out two communities are launching their own investigation based on our findings.
Click here to see Councilwoman Manzi's email response and here to see the Johnston Homestead Exemption form.
It is 6:20 on a Tuesday morning and the Manzi family is already on the move.
Stephanie Manzi, vice president of the Johnston Town Council, is driving her 16-year-old triplets to school - and traffic is picking up on Route 6 heading east. Instead of making the 10-minute drive from their home to Johnston High School, the Manzis hop onto Route 295 south, to 95 south, to Route 4 south, before taking the exit heading into the heart of South County.
Forty-five minutes after leaving home, Councilwoman Manzi drops her children off in front of ….Narragansett High School. The triplets, now sophomores and honor roll students, have been going to class here since August of 2014, the beginning of their freshman year.
A Hummel Report investigation found Manzi regularly driving her children in the morning from her home in Johnston to the high school 33 miles to the south. Rhode Island state law is clear about where public school students may enroll: in the community where they live - and by extension where at least one of their parents lives.
So we asked her about it after a council meeting last week.
Hummel: ``I understand they go to Narragansett High School, is that correct?’’
Manzi: ``Where my kids go to school? Why is that any public, why is that necessary for public information?’’
Hummel: ``Because you live in Johnston and they’re going to school in Narragansett?’’
Manzi: ``But my husband lives in Narragansett with my kids.’’
Councilwoman Manzi told us her husband Paul, a retired Johnston police officer, who now is a lieutenant on the Rhode Island College Campus Police force, lives in this 784-square-foot cottage on Ocean Road in Narragansett, two blocks from the water. The couple bought it in 2012. And that is the address Paul Manzi used as his principal residence when he registered their children for school.
Councilwoman Manzi told us the cottage - and not this 3,200-square-foot house in Johnston they’ve owned for more than a decade - is where the children live.
Hummel: ``You’re sure about that?’’
Manzi: ``Yes I am.’’
Hummel: ``So over the last month your kids haven’t been living with you in Johnston?’’
Manzi: ``Well, it’s a small state, they do come back and see me that’s the nice thing about it being such a small state.’’
Hummel: ``And are you divorced from your husband?’’
Manzi: ``No I’m not divorced. But we own property in Narragansett and he lives down there with the kids during the school year.’’
Hummel: ``Specifically so they can go to Narragansett High School?’’
Manzi: ``Well, therre are a couple of reasons why we wanted them to go outside of Johnston.’’
Hummel: ``So you didn’t want them to go to Johnston High School.’’
Manzi: ``Well, my kids wanted to go to a small school, it’s a much smaller school, they’ve been going to a small school since Brown Avenue, then they went to St. Phillips.’’
Narragansett High School, which has 415 students, is consistently ranked in the top 10 for public high schools in Rhode Island. The average cost per pupil in the town is just shy of $20,000.
Paul Manzi’s stated residency in Narragansett contradicts a form Councilwoman Manzi signed a year ago to receive a ``homestead exemption’’ that gives the couple a 20 percent reduction on the taxes they pay for their home in Johnston. That translates to a $1,588 savings for the Manzis.
Councilwoman Manzi and her colleagues unanimously supported a measure last year to crack down on those who were violating the homestead exemption, a measure spearheaded by Mayor Joseph Polisena.
Hummel: ``You get the homestead exemption?’’
Manzi: ``I get it here in Johnston, yes. ‘’
Hummel: ``So you’re taking the homestead exemption...’’
Manzi: ``There’s nothing in in Narragansett, I claim nothing in Narragansett. My primary residence is Johnston.’’
Following our interview, The Hummel Report obtained the notarized form Councilwoman Manzi signed - saying this home is her principal residence and that she and/or her spouse do not claim any other residence as their principal residence (jointly or solely).
Polisena: ``Our policy is to review an homestead that’s questionable, that’s brought to our attention.’’
Mayor Polisena has instructed the town solicitor to look at the Manzis’ situation, based on our investigation. The councilwoman, he added, will be treated like any other homeowner.
Polisena: ``And if the legal department, my town solicitor, determines that the homestead that was filled out is not correct then what we would do with anybody else is obvioulsy remove the homestead and they would have to pay back what the difference is with interest and penalties.’’
In a follow-up email this week, Councilwoman Manzi said she acknowledges confirming her residency in Johnston on the homestead form, but quote: `could not attest’ to her spouse’s residency without having power of attorney - and will be asking her fellow council members to consider reviewing changes to the wording of the form.
Hummel: ``Have you had any challenges on the wording?’’
Polisena: ``No, not at all.’’
Hummel: ``And you’ve had people willingly sign that document?’’
Hummel: ``For their spouses.’’
Hummel: ``Nobody’s ever said `I can’t come in an sign for my spouse.’”
Polisena: ``As long as their name is on the deed. The person signing it, as long as their name is on the deed.’’
And while Paul Manzi registers his vehicles in Narragansett - where the car tax is less than half of what it is in Johnston, records we obtained show he is registered to vote in Johnston, his paycheck from Rhode Island College goes to Johnston, his pension check is mailed to his address in Johnston; and he incorporated a business in the summer of 2015 using the couple’s home address in Johnston.
Hummel: ``We’ve been actually watching your patterns the last month, about where they’re staying. They’re not spending a lot of time in Narragansett. You’re saying they’re full time residents?’’
Manzi: ``They are registered to live in Narragansett, yes they are.’’
Hummel: ``But they really live in Johnston, don’t they?’’
Manzi: ``They live in Narragansett.’’
Hummel: ``Where did they take off this morning to go to school?’’
Manzi: ``This morning, because they spent the weekend with me. They spend the weekends with me in Johnston.’’
We saw the children staying at the cottage two nights during one week earlier this month - with Councilwoman Manzi, who left for work at 6:05 a.m. About half an hour later the triplets hopped on a Narragansett school bus just down the road from the cottage.
Hummel: ``So you’ve basically set it up that you’re living apart even though you’re together so they can go to school in Narragansett.’’
Hummel: ``Well, there are plenty of families, you know, there are other families that probably do what we do?’’
Hummel: ``You think that there are?’’
Manzi: ``There’s a lot of people that don’t use the Johnston public school system. We made a family decision that that was the right fit for my children.’’
Hummel: ``They’re all week down in Narragansett?’’
Manzi: ``Sometimes they do come back up here to see me. I mean, I’m still their mother. They spend time with me, yes.’’
Hummel: ``You understand the optics of it, though, right?’’
Manzi: ``No, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m also saying that we have set the situation up so my kids can go to the smaller school that they wanted to go to. There are also issues with other elected officials whose children get treated poorly because of decisions that they make and they vote on.’’
Hummel: ``Is that an issue in Johnston?’’
Manzi: ``It is. It has been an issue with another elected official.’’
Hummel: ``Then why don’t you just move to Narragansett?’’
Manzi: ``Because I love Johnston.’’
The superintendent in Narragansett tells The Hummel Report that based on our investigation she has begun her own into the Manzis’ residency. We requested a copy of the Certificate of Residency filled out by Paul Manzi. The superintendent said it was not in the packet of information the family submitted to register; she told us she does not know why and that will be part of her investigation - which includes a meeting with the family this week.
Manzi: ``The decision to…where my children were going to go to school happened after I had decided to run again, so we made the family decision that we were going to live separately during high school.’’
In Johnston - and Narragansett - Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.