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Giannini v. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education

Superior Court of Rhode Island

March 30, 2016

SUSAN GIANNINI, as parent and natural guardian on behalf of G. DOE, a minor
v.
COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION, EVA-MARIE MANCUSO, AMY BARETTA, COLLEEN A. CALLAGHAN, KARIN L. FORBES, JO EVA GAINES, PATRICK A. GUIDA, LAWRENCE PURTILL, MATHIES J. SANTOS, JOYCE STEVOS, in their official capacities as members of the RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION, COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION, and CUMBERLAND SCHOOL DEPARTMENT

Providence County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Veronika M. Kot, Esq.

For Defendant: Paul V. Sullivan, Esq. Stephen Adams, Esq.

DECISION

CARNES, J.

Before the Court is an appeal from a decision of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (the Council) affirming the denial of a request for a waiver of fees for summer school classes. The Plaintiff, Susan Giannini (Plaintiff), had filed the request as parent and natural guardian on behalf of her son, G. Doe. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15.

I Facts and Travel

The facts underlying this case essentially are undisputed. Plaintiff's son, G. Doe, was a ninth-grade student at Cumberland High School during the 2011-2012 school year. (Letter to Pl. dated June 20, 2012, Ex. 22 of Original Record) (Ex. 22)).[1] On June 20, 2012, Cumberland High School (the School) informed Plaintiff, in writing, that her son had failed Algebra 1 (semester 2), English 1 (semesters 1 and 2), PE/Health, and Physics (semesters 1 and 2), and it "recommended that [he] attend a summer program to recover any missing credits to stay on track with graduation requirements." Id. The School then noted:

"if your child has an F in a core course from a previous year that has not been made up, they [sic] have the opportunity to make the course up during the CLASS [Cumberland Learning Academy for School Success] Credit Recovery Program. If they [sic] do not complete it during the summer, they [sic] will be required to repeat the course during the school year prior to graduation. The appropriate adjustments have been made to your child's schedule for next year." Id.

Plaintiff later was informed that G. Doe needed three credits to advance into the 10th grade; namely, English, one full credit; Math, one-half credit; and PE, one-half credit. (Ex. 22, Appeal from District Charge of Tuition Fee, 1.) Plaintiff further was informed that the cost for the summer program would amount to $700. Id.

On June 26, 2012, Plaintiff wrote a letter to Dr. Phil Thornton, Superintendent of the Cumberland School District (School District), stating the following:

"It is my understanding that if my son, [G. Doe], does not attend summer school, he will be retained in the 9th grade. With that said.
"I am requesting a waiver of the summer school fees that I must incur. I cannot afford them and do not feel that I should be responsible for them. These fees are a direct result of the school systems [sic] failure to provide my son with a Free Appropriate Public Education [FAPE].
"All parties need to meet during the summer to address these inadequacies and to ensure the success of my son's academic future." (Ex. 22, Letter to Superintendent dated June 26, 2012.)

On July 3, 2012, Superintendent Thornton requested "more substantive information that supports your assertions regarding [G. Doe's] denial of FAPE . . . In the meantime, you may wish to enroll [G. Doe] in summer school and should I conclude that fees be waived, the School Department will reimburse you for a specified amount of money." (Ex. 22, Letter to Plaintiff dated July 3, 2012.) The Superintendent then suggested that Plaintiff contact the School directly to arrange a meeting with the relevant parties; however, "[s]ince this is the summer vacation period, I anticipate that any meetings with school staff can be accommodated at the beginning of the new school year." Id. Thereafter, Plaintiff consulted with Rhode Island Legal Services (Legal Services) for advice. See Ex. 22, Letter to Cumberland School District dated Aug. 15, 2012.

On August 15, 2012, Plaintiff, through Legal Services, stated that she had paid over $700 in fees for summer classes for her son, and she alleged that the imposition of fees for summer school fees was illegal because they "negate[d] Rhode Island's firm position about the free nature of public education." Id. She also accused the School District of providing G. Doe, a special education student, with insufficient educational support during the year and asserted that charging him fees for summer school exacerbated the denial of his FAPE. Id. Plaintiff then requested a full and immediate reimbursement of G. Doe's summer school fees, as well as a "written clarification about what Cumberland's policy will be going forward with regard to charging fees for summer classes for all students[.]" Id. (emphasis added).

On September 11, 2012, the School District, through counsel, informed Plaintiff "that Cumberland will not be reimbursing [G. Doe's] parents for th[e] expense" of his summer school classes. (Ex. 22, Letter dated Sept. 11, 2012.) The letter gave no explanation or reason for the denial. See id. On December 13, 2012, Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Ex. 22, Appeal from District Charge of Tuition Fee.)

In her appeal, Plaintiff sought a determination that summer school fees "are unauthorized under Rhode Island Law because the General Assembly has not granted school committees the authority to charge fees for such school activities." Id. at 3. Accordingly, Plaintiff sought reimbursement of "[t]he illegally charged and collected fees . . . ." Id.

At a January 17, 2013 hearing, the parties agreed that there were no facts in dispute and that the matter purely was a legal question. (Ex. 21 at 2.) Plaintiff's counsel asserted that because G. Doe had to attend summer school in order to obtain the necessary credits for him to pass from the 9th grade to the 10th grade, the fees for such program were illegal. Id. at 3. Counsel for the School District responded by asserting that the fee was not mandatory because attendance in the School's summer program was optional and that G. Doe could have obtained the required credits by repeating the 9th grade or by attending a different summer school program that was approved by the School District. Id. In their post-hearing memoranda, the parties reiterated, and expanded upon, the aforementioned legal arguments. See Exs. 18-20.

In her May 21, 2013 decision, Commissioner Gist observed that G. Doe was entitled to free appropriate special education because he had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and that he had "indicate[d] in his brief that he intend[ed] to reserve his right to bring a claim for reimbursement through the normal special education appeal mechanism." See Ex. 17 at 2. She then concluded "that prudential considerations require us to first address the specific special education issues presented in this case to determine if this case may be disposed of a [sic] narrow and particular special education grounds instead of proceeding to immediately address the school fee issue which involves statewide issues." Id. at 3. Accordingly, Commissioner Gist ordered the matter to be rescheduled for the taking of evidence on the special education claims. Id.

The Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Rhode Island Board of Education (Board) contending that Commissioner Gist erred in not addressing the legality of summer school fees. (Ex. 16.) Specifically, Plaintiff contended that by considering the matter as a claim under special education laws, a claim "which the student had expressly NOT brought . . . [, ]" Commissioner Gist had discriminated against G. Doe by not adjudicating his claim on a par with other students. Id.

On December 9, 2013, the Board remanded the matter to Commissioner Gist "for a determination on the question presented of whether a school district may charge any public school student, irrespective of special education protections, for tuition for summer classes." (Ex. 11 at 2.) In doing so, the Board noted that despite the parties' representations to the contrary, there existed an unresolved factual issue as to whether summer classes were mandatory or optional. Id.

On remand, the School District asserted that regardless of whether the summer school program is characterized as mandatory or optional, the fact that the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) "has not deemed summer school credit recovery or enrichment classes to be 'essential to the provision of a quality education'" was dispositive on the issue of fees. (Ex. 9 at 2.) The Plaintiff countered by arguing that school committees lack the authority to impose such fees. (Ex. 8 at 1.) After reconsidering the matter, Commissioner Gist issued a written decision on March 18, 2014. (Ex. 7.)

In that decision, Commissioner Gist found that the summer school program was not subject to the requirements set forth in RIDE's Basic Education Program Manual (BEP Manual) because the program was discretionary and outside the scope of the school year. Id. at 4.[2]Accordingly, she concluded that "[t]he Cumberland School District may legally charge tuition fees for its summer programs and courses." Id. at 5. She further concluded that considering that the state does not provide funding for summer school programs, "[t]o hold otherwise would invite a tangible risk of discontinuance of local school district summer educational programs, which in itself may be viewed as violative of public policy." Id. at 4.

Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a second appeal to the Board asserting that the decision had no basis in law and was at odds with longstanding statutory law and legal precedent. (Ex. 5.) On October 14, 2014, the Council, in its capacity as the Board's successor-in-interest, affirmed Commissioner's Gist's decision. (Ex. 2.) In doing so, it found that Commissioner Gist's decision was "consistent with Rhode Island law." Id. at 2.

The Plaintiff timely appealed to this Court by filing a Complaint on October 28, 2014. In her Complaint, Plaintiff asks the Court to reverse and vacate the Council's decision, order reimbursement of the tuition charge, and award fees and costs pursuant to chapter 92 of title 42 of the Rhode Island General Laws, the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).

II Standard of Review

This Court has appellate jurisdiction to review final orders of state administrative agencies pursuant to chapter 35 of title 42 of the Rhode Island General Laws, the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). McAninch v. State of R.I. Dep't of Labor & Training, 64 A.3d 84, 87 (R.I. 2013). Section 42-35-15(g) of the APA governs this Court's review of the Council's decision and provides in pertinent part:

"The court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings, or it may reverse or modify the decision if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced ...

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