Region 16 challenging state over magnet school tuition

BEACON FALLS — Legislation requiring school districts, not parents, pay tuition for part-time magnet school programs has Region 16 officials looking to confront the state.

“I want to fight the state,” Superintendent of Schools James Agostine told the Region 16 Board of Education during its May 25 meeting.

According to an April 10 letter to school superintendents from George Coleman, the state’s acting commissioner of education, the General Assembly enacted new legislation that reaffirms its expectations that school districts pay the tuition costs for students attending magnet schools operated by a regional educational service center.

In response to inquires into whether districts have to cover tuition costs for students attending magnet schools part-time, Coleman wrote in the letter that the state statute doesn’t provide any basis for this exception to a district’s responsibility for tuition costs.

“Accordingly, it is expected that districts will not charge back to parents those tuition costs incurred as a result of student enrollment in any part-time interdistrict magnet programs that operate at least half the time, regardless of theme,” Coleman wrote.

What this means for Region 16, is that the district will now have to cover the tuition of Woodland Regional High School students attending the ACES Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven.

The district has partnered with ECA for years. Students attend Woodland for their core subjects then leave at 1 p.m. to go to ECA for a focused enrichment program in an artistic field, like dance or creative writing.

School officials explained the impetus for partnering with ECA was that parents would have the pay the roughly $3,700 a year tuition. According to the state Department of Education, that option is no longer available.

Currently, Agostine said, two students go to ECA and five students are slated to go there next school year. The five students will cost the district roughly $18,500 next school year in tuition costs.

Agostine said it’s not that the expense is a high one—the district currently pays $7,500 each for 12 students to attend the Vo-Ag program at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury. He said it’s an unexpected expense the board had not factored into its budget.

“We suddenly racked up a bill approaching $20,000 that we did not anticipate in our budget,” Agostine said.

Agostine said school districts have taken the news differently. Some, he said, has absorbed the costs while others were looking to challenge the state. Working with Region 10 school officials, Agostine said he will seek a declaratory ruling on the matter.

The issue isn’t expected to impact the Naugatuck school system according to borough school officials.

It was unclear whether Region 16 could drop-out of its partnership with ECA. Priscilla Cretella, vice chair of the board, said the district has to complete the education for students currently attending ECA. But, she said, the district didn’t have to allow any new students to go.

Board member Robert Hiscox pointed out that if the district has to pay for tuition, it could mean more students will attend ECA, driving up the cost.

While the board discussed the options available to it, no members advocated for ending the partnership.

Cretella descried the program as superb, and said she’d hate to see it go.

“It is absolutely, truly excellent. … The kids that go there benefit tremendously,” she said.