Brass City Charter School claims its local Board of Education has failed to reimburse $748,893.07 in special education and related costs. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

A ruling from the state Board of Education on Brass City Charter School’s claim that its home district — Waterbury Public Schools — hasn’t reimbursed over $700,000 in special education costs could set a precedent related to charter school funding in Connecticut.

Though charter schools are mostly funded through a state grant, districts where a charter school is located are responsible for transportation and “reasonable” special education costs.

According to a petition, Brass City Charter School, which educates 360 Waterbury students from pre-K through eighth grade, says it requested its local Board of Education reimburse “100% of the actual cost of providing special education and related services to Waterbury resident students but the [Waterbury] BoE has refused,” since the 2018-19 school year, totaling $748,893.07 of unpaid expenses.

The Waterbury Board of Education argued that “eligible costs in each matter are subject to a fact-sensitive inquiry” and that certain expenses from Brass City, like a special education coordinator, are “non-essential, and therefore not a reasonable cost required to be reimbursed,” the petition states.

Last month, the state Board of Education unanimously voted to issue rulings on two of five issues presented by Brass City Charter School, including whether the state law is “properly interpreted” by requiring a host district to reimburse a state charter school for the “actual cost” of special education and related services part of a student’s Individualized Education Program and whether that total would include the “percentage of time school personnel spend on administrative and planning activities … in addition to the time spent on direct instruction.”

“With a charter school, I think this is the first time that this issue has come up,” said Mike McKeon, an attorney and the director of the division of legal and governmental affairs at the state’s Department of Education. “We had a petition for a declaratory ruling a few months ago by Norwich Free Academy regarding tuition payments that were owed … [but] the board declined to issue a declaratory ruling in that case because ultimately it came down to a contractual dispute between parties. This case [with Brass City] really deals more with the appropriate application of a statute. That’s pretty important, and it affects all charter schools as to the reimbursement for special education costs.”

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At the September state Board of Education meeting, board members voted for McKeon and attorney Louis B. Todisco to investigate the allegations from the charter school then issue recommendations for a ruling.

The state Board of Education said the two issues they plan to rule on “appear to be central to the dispute, and rulings on these issues, if accepted by the parties, may bring the dispute between the parties to a resolution,” and that they didn’t take up the remaining issues because they would “not have the same effect or are otherwise not appropriate for resolution by a declaratory ruling.”

McKeon also added that a teleconference has been set up with all of the stakeholders during the first week of October to establish a timeline.

Other charter schools in the state will have the opportunity to share similar complaints.

“There is at least one other charter school that has raised this issue with respect to the New Haven Board of Education,” McKeon said. “So although Brass City is the only one party that’s in this petition, this is something that’s applicable to charter schools across the state. We will probably be seeking [other charter schools that are] interested and wish to submit documentation [of similar disputes].”

Brass City Charter School. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

At the board of education meeting, McKeon expected a decision to be made by November, but he later told The Connecticut Mirror the recommendation will likely be issued in early December instead.

“We’re dealing with a pretty vulnerable population that is special education children. The law really requires that the charter school implement the educational programming for these students. Even if they’re not getting paid, they still have their own obligation to meet students’ needs. So, without getting paid for it, it puts them in a real financial bind,” McKeon said. “At the same time, we have to make sure that charter schools are not overcharging or they’re not being unreasonable in their charges. … We just have to determine a means by which brings clarity to the situation.”

The conflict began in the summer of 2019, when the local board of education and leadership at the charter school didn’t agree on the reimbursement formula between the district and school. 

That year, the school district said it owed the charter school a net total reimbursement of $141,051.33 but deducted over $104,000 for “in-kind services,” including a paraprofessional, social worker, speech and language staffer, school psychologists and special education supervisor. The local school board paid the school $36,941 for the “remaining balance,” a cost that Barbara Ruggiero, the executive director of the charter school, said was “unrealistic.”

Ruggiero responded to the reimbursement by explaining, in an email back to the district, the salary of a full-time special education teacher and the hirings of a paraprofessional and a part-time staff member “who did testing as well as consulting with teachers regarding modifications for special education students,” totaling $108,136. Furthermore, she identified what she called “miscalculations” in the district’s reimbursement model, specifically outlining allotted money for speech and language, social work services and benefits.

“Even more disturbing — using the current calculation logic, when the District provides the additional paraprofessionals required by IEPs in the 2019-20 school year, BCCS will end up with no money whatsoever,” Ruggiero wrote. “It would presumably then be the position of the District that all monies for 2019-20 will have been spent and there is NO money allotted for certified staff to service the students. That just makes no sense.”

In August 2019, the district and school leadership continued a back-and-forth about whether the district met its obligation. The district’s superintendent argued that Waterbury had been “traditionally underfunded” and was struggling with “considerable unfunded mandates.”

“So, the consequence is that we must work to find solutions where we can while we meet our various legal obligations,” said Waterbury Superintendent Verna D. Ruffin.

The district ultimately offered about $98,000 in special education reimbursement costs, which Ruggiero rejected, saying the calculation did not “in any way represent the cost of special education for BCCS for special educators as well as paras.”

In April 2021, the state’s Department of Education responded to the ongoing dispute by offering a “technical assistance session” to help with “some complexities with the application,” of the law and what a district is required to reimbursed. The session did not resolve the issue and Brass City hired legal counsel in the spring of 2022.

Waterbury Public Schools and the charter school didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.