Region 16 school board faces fight or flight decision

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The Region 16 Board of Education will discuss whether to join the Region 10 school district in seeking a declaratory judgment on paying tuition for students who attend part-time magnet schools during a special meeting Wednesday night. FILE PHOTO
PROSPECT — To fight or not to fight, that’s the question before the Region 16 Board of Education as it contemplates its next step regarding a state ruling on magnet school tuition.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly enacted new legislation that reaffirms its expectations that school districts must pay the tuition costs for students attending magnet schools, including part-time magnet schools, operated by a regional educational service center.

For Region 16, this means the district will now have to cover the tuition of Woodland Regional High School students who attend the part-time ACES Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven.

The district has partnered with ECA for years, but parents have been responsible for the roughly $3,700 yearly tuition. Five Woodland students are slated to go to ECA next school year. The five students will cost the district roughly $18,500 next school year in tuition costs.

Superintendent of Schools James Agostine first brought the issue to the board’s attention in late May. Last week, Agostine sought the board’s approval to join the Region 10 school district, which serves Burlington and Harwinton, in seeking a declaratory judgment on the matter.

“Sometimes you have to draw the line in the sand for what’s right,” Agostine said, during the board’s June 22 meeting. “This is clearly an unfunded mandate.”

Agostine said the legal fees for the declaratory judgment are expected to cost about $20,000. If the board agrees to sign on with Region 10, he said, the district’s share of the legal fees would be no more than $3,000 or $4,000.

Agostine said the judgment is expected to be filed in late July. Any ruling that comes out of the filing may not come in time for the district to avoid paying the tuition this coming school year.

As the board debated its next move, no clear consensus arose among board members.

Board member Donna Cullen said the district could sit back and let Region 10 and others move ahead with the declaratory judgment. She said Region 16 would benefit from a favorable judgment even if it doesn’t sign on with Region 10.

Along that same train of thought, board member David Wartko suggested waiting to see if other districts join on before the board commits.

Other board members felt the right step is to join with Region 10 in seeking the judgment.

“It’s the neighborly thing to do,” said board member Robert Hiscox, who added the time may come when Region 16 needs support.

Board member William Fredericks said if the board holds back it sends the message that the board is willing to roll over on state mandates.

“The mandate today may not be big. But, what’s the next one?” Fredericks said.

After much discussion, Cullen questioned whether the district could reap the benefits of a judgment in its favor, since it wasn’t one of the original districts named in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case.

The case was a legal battle over the inequity between public education for Hartford children compared to children in surrounding suburban communities. In 1996, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sheff plaintiffs forcing the state to take measures to alleviate the inequity. Among the steps taken by the state was the formation of magnet schools.

No one was able to answer Cullen’s question at the meeting, and the issue was ultimately tabled to a special board meeting this Wednesday.