Districts balk at paying part-time and preschool magnet tuitions

Faced with the need to cut their own budgets, six school districts are going to court to challenge directives by the State Department of Education that they pay tuition for local students who attend part-time or pre-Kindergarten regional magnet school programs.

“Why are we being told we have to pay for this?” asked Alan Beitman, superintendent of Regional School District No. 10 in Harwinton and Burlington. “Just because the state doesn’t want to pay it’s own bills doesn’t mean we should have to pay them.”

The Superior Court lawsuit is aimed at two memos issued by the State Department of Education regarding responsibilities of local districts to pay tuition for students in their towns who attend regional magnet schools.

The first was sent in July 2008 by then-Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan outlining steps the department was taking to comply with a court settlement under the Sheff v. O’Neill case to integrate Hartford schools. The memo advised districts that they are required to pay tuition for preschool magnet programs, whether or not the district offers preschool programs itself. Statewide, there are 818 preschool students attending magnet schools, according to the State Department of Education.

The second came from Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman in April, advising districts that they are required to pay tuition for part-time magnet programs and can’t ask parents to come up with all or part of the cost. The part-time programs generally are specialized classes for high school students who attend the regular district high school the rest of the time. Statewide, there are almost 1,000 students attending these part-time programs, reports the SDE.

In the lawsuit, five of the six districts–Region 10, Ellington, New Hartford, Newington and Barkhamsted–say they should not be required to pay tuition for magnet preschool programs as dictated by the July 2008 memo. Among them, the districts sent 25 students to preschool programs run by the Capitol Region Education Council in 2010 at a total cost of more than $100,000.

The lawsuit says that because none of the districts provides universal preschool itself–although some have limited programs to which students are admitted for special needs or by lottery–and because state law doesn’t require them to provide schooling for children younger than 5, they should not have to pay for 3- and 4-year-old students whose parents choose to send them to magnets.

In addition, four of the six districts–Ellington, Newington, Region 10 and Regional School District 16, which includes Prospect and Beacon Falls–say Coleman’s April memo wrongly interprets state law when it requires them to pay tuition for students who attend part time magnet programs. It was not clear Friday how many students the districts have in part-time programs.

The district say the SDE is requiring them to pay tuition because the magnet programs are in operation at least half-time, even though many students spend less than half their time in the programs and are at the local high school for a majority of their classroom hours.

The lawsuit also says the memo is wrong in saying the districts can’t require parents to pay all or part of the tuition costs, as the two regional districts do.

“If we had known we would have to eventually cover all those costs we would have never entered an agreement to send kids there,” said James Agostine, the superintendent of Region 16, which sends students to the regional Education Center for the Arts in New Haven. “I love the program and love having that option for students but to me this is a monetary issue… We’ve had to cut programs and lay off teachers and staff.”

CREC director Bruce Douglas said the pushback from the schools is the result of tight budgets that haven’t recovered from the recession.

“This fallout has to do with the hard times [school] districts are all facing, not the quality of the programs,” he said.

Douglas said he understands the tough position districts find themselves in, but suburban participation in magnet schools is essential for the state to meet the Sheff v. O’Neill order that Hartford schools be integrated.

“If the state doesn’t pay, and the district doesn’t pay then we would run huge deficits and may lead to us having to close down those programs,” he said.

The answer, Beitman said, is that the state should pay. Otherwise, “we’ll have to begin cutting costs in our district to pay for this. It’s an unfunded mandate from the state.”