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East Providence School Department v. Rhode Island Board of Education

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

April 13, 2018

EAST PROVIDENCE SCHOOL DEPARTMENT
v.
RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION, EVA-MARIE MANCUSO, ESQ., DR. ANTONIO BARAJAS, MICHAEL BERNSTEIN, COLLEEN A. CALLAHAN, KARIN L. FORBES, JO EVA GAINES, MICHAEL A GRANDE CPA, MST, PATRICK A. GUIDA, ESQ., WILLIAM MAIAA, ESQ., LAWRENCE PURTILL, MATHIES J. SANTOS, in their official capacities as members of the Rhode Island Board of Education, and ELAINE WALLER, p.p.a. as parent and natural guardian of E. DOE, a minor

          For Plaintiff: Andrew Thomas, Esq.; Ronald F. Cascione, Esq.

          For Defendant: Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.

          DECISION

          K. RODGERS, J.

         Before this Court is an appeal from a decision of the Rhode Island Board of Education (Board of Education) affirming the Commissioner of Education's (the Commissioner) decision in favor of Appellees E. Doe (Doe) and Doe's parent, Elaine Waller. In its March 11, 2013 decision, the Board of Education concluded that the East Providence School Department (School Department or Appellant) was required to pay Doe's tuition to attend a state approved career and technical program of study, which was located outside of her city of residence, during the 2011-2012 academic year.

         Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 42-35-15, et seq. For the reasons that follow, the Board of Education's decision is affirmed.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         From 2009 to 2013, Doe was a high school student who lived with her parents in the City of East Providence. During that time, Doe attended the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts (the Walsh School), located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Walsh School is a public arts high school offering conservatory style classes in visual arts, dance, music and theater, in addition to rigorous academic courses. As a student at the Walsh School, Doe studied music, specifically, the violin, which the East Providence High School did not offer.

         During her freshman and sophomore years, 2009-2011, Doe's parents paid out-of-district tuition so that she could attend the music program at the Walsh School. In May 2011, four months before the beginning of Doe's junior year, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) designated the Walsh School's visual arts, dance, music, and theater programs as "approved career and technical programs of study." In light of the school's approval by RIDE, Doe's parents, on her behalf, requested that the School Department pay Doe's tuition for the upcoming 2011-2012 academic year. The School Department denied Doe's request, maintaining that it had no obligation to pay the tuition because the Walsh School was not one of the ten schools identified as an "area vocational-technical center" by the 1990 Regulations of the Board of Regents Governing the Management and Operation of Area Vocational-Technical Centers in Rhode Island (1990 Regulations).[1] Doe's parents paid out-of-district tuition for the 2011-2012 academic year.

         On July 1, 2012, after Doe completed her junior year at the Walsh School, RIDE updated the 1990 Regulations and removed the provision that specifically identified the ten schools.[2] The School Department thereafter paid Doe's tuition for the 2012-2013 school year for her attendance at the Walsh School, in conformity with RIDE's updated regulations. Thus, the only tuition at issue in this appeal is for the 2011-2012 academic year.

         Doe appealed to RIDE from the School Department's denial of her request for tuition to be paid for the 2011-2012 academic year. In a decision dated October 11, 2011, the Commissioner found that the School Department was required to pay Doe's tuition for the 2011-2012 academic year. The School Department subsequently appealed the Commissioner's decision to the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education (the Board of Regents), which in turn remanded the matter to the Commissioner for further findings.[3] On remand, the Commissioner affirmed its October 11, 2011 decision. The School Department appealed the Commissioner's Decision on Remand to the Board of Education, the Board of Regents' successor.[4] By its decision dated March 11, 2013, the Board of Education affirmed the Commissioner's decision and concluded that the School Department was required to pay Doe's 2011-2012 tuition. The School Department timely appealed the Board of Education's decision to this Court on April 3, 2013.

         II

         Standard of Review

         Section 42-35-15(g) of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) establishes this Court's appellate jurisdiction to review final decisions issued by state administrative agencies. See McAninch v. State of R.I. Dep't of Labor & Training, 64 A.3d 84, 87 (R.I. 2013). Pursuant to § 42-35-15(g),

"[t]he 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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