The Central Lincoln County School System is going to court to contest a state decision requiring it to pay a non-resident student’s private school tuition.
The school system, also known as Alternative Organizational Structure 93, and its eight school committees filed a Rule 80-C petition for judicial review, a type of civil action, in Kennebec County Superior Court Feb. 6.
The case involves a 16-year-old Boothbay Harbor boy who is a junior at Lincoln Academy. The boy has attended Lincoln Academy since his freshman year and his parents have paid his tuition to the private Newcastle high school.
Last fall, his parents asked the superintendents of their son’s home district, AOS 98, and AOS 93 to approve a transfer for the student into AOS 93.
The transfer would make the student a resident of AOS 93 in the eyes of the law and require AOS 93 to pay his tuition, although he would continue to live in Boothbay Harbor.
The superintendents of both districts denied the transfer request, but the parents appealed to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who granted the appeal.
Previous education commissioners largely deferred to superintendents regarding transfers. Bowen, however, an outspoken proponent for school choice, had granted 86 of 92 appeals in the current academic year as of January 2013.
Local officials have expressed concern that the commissioner’s decision will lead more parents of non-resident students to pursue the same route and force the school system to pay private high school tuition for their children.
AOS 93 is particularly vulnerable because it does not operate a public high school and must pay tuition at the public or private school of a parent’s choice.
The district pays almost $10,000 per year for every student who attends Lincoln Academy. Almost all of those funds come from local property taxes.
Senator Chris Johnson and Rep. Mick Devin, state legislators who represent the towns of AOS 93, have introduced a bill to protect school systems against having to pay private tuition for non-resident students.
AOS 93 Superintendent Steve Bailey said the court action would protect the school system this year, whereas the bill, if it passes, would protect the school system in future years.
The AOS 93 board unanimously approved the action Feb. 4 and the municipal school committees have been following suit at their regular monthly meetings, Bailey said.
Bruce Smith, an attorney with the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, filed the petition on behalf of AOS 93.
“The commissioner’s decision to grant the transfer request without a factually supported finding regarding the student’s best interest exceeded his statutory authority, was arbitrary and capricious and constitutes an abuse of discretion,” according to the document.
The decision also violates a state law that “requires parents to pay tuition for students who reside in school administrative districts that operate public schools, but attend school elsewhere.”
The non-resident student at issue lives in a town of AOS 98, which operates Boothbay Region High School.
Bailey, the AOS 93 superintendent, said the commissioner has 30 days to respond to the petition. “If he disagrees and continues his decision, I believe it then goes to Superior Court for judgment,” he said.