Six school systems are suing the state Department of Education over who should pay the tuition for students attending some magnet school programs.
Local schools have long been required to pay tuition for their students who attend magnet schools full time, part of the state's plan to achieve racial balance in Hartford schools.
But the six suburban and rural districts, representing eight towns, contend in the lawsuit that the Department of Education now improperly requires them to pay for part-time and pre-kindergarten students, even though they have not in the past.
Attorney Mark K. Sommaruga, of Sullivan, Schoen, Campane & Connon, said there is no basis in state law for the extended tuition mandates. The lawsuit, which will be filed at Superior Court in New Britain, seeks a declaratory judgment preventing the state from requiring them to pay for part-time and pre-kindergarten programs.
"We're just saying the state of Connecticut has gotten the law wrong," Sommaruga said.
Mark Linabury, spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed Monday that it had been served with the lawsuit, but declined to comment because it had not been reviewed yet.
The plaintiffs are Regional School District 10, which covers Burlington and Harwinton; Newington; New Hartford; Ellington; Regional School District 16, which covers Prospect and Beacon Falls; and Barkhamsted.
Many districts previously had agreements with the state on how much they would pay for part-time tuition, with the balance being passed on to the student's parents. In April, the acting education commissioner sent a letter to districts informing them they were responsible for the entire tuition.
School officials backing the lawsuit said they were stunned earlier this year when they started receiving much higher-than-expected bills for part-time students, as well as pre-kindergarten students they didn't even realize were enrolled in magnet schools.
Some districts initially refused to pay and the state threatened to deduct the money from their town's Educational Cost Sharing grants, the primary form of state education aid. The lawsuit also wants that practice prohibited.
Alan Beitman, superintendent of lead plaintiff Regional School District 10, said most part-time students -- who attend the magnets for half a day Monday to Thursday for arts, math and science programs -- could graduate with the credits they earn at their home schools.
He said part-time tuition is only several hundred dollars less than full-time tuition, which makes no sense and means local districts are essentially paying double for each student.
The lawsuit also contends that the state does not require local districts to provide pre-kindergarten for most students, so they should not be forced to pay for such programs out of their district.
"Class sizes will go up, services will be cut, so I can fund a program in another community," Beitman said.
The magnet schools are designed to offer special curriculums in a racially balanced setting, attracting students from both the suburbs and the city. In suburban schools, seats then become available for Hartford students to attend through the Open Choice program.
The state is trying to increase participation to comply with the settlement in the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation lawsuit.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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