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Chariho Regional School District v. Rhode Island Council On Elementary

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

February 26, 2019

CHARIHO REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff,
v.
RHODE ISLAND COUNCIL ON ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION and the METROPOLITAN REGIONAL CAREER AND TECHNICAL SCHOOL, Defendants.

          For Plaintiff: John Mason Anderson, Esq.

          For Defendant: Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.; Matthew R. Plain, Esq.

          DECISION

          CARNES, J.

         Before this Court is the Chariho Regional School District's (District) administrative appeal from a decision by the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (Council). The Council affirmed the Commissioner of Education's (Commissioner) grant of partial summary judgment in favor of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical School (Met School) and ordered the District to reimburse the Met School for the Chariho residents who attended the Met School during the 2012-2013 school year. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 42-35-15 and 16-39-4.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The material facts of this case are not in dispute. The Met School has been authorized by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) as a career and technical school pursuant to § 16-45-6 since 1996. Currently, the Met School has campuses in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. However, the school serves students from throughout the state, including students residing in the District. The Met School is the only school in the state that offers an Individual Vocational Studies (IVS) program. Hr'g Tr. 51:2-14, Apr. 30, 2015 (Tr.) The Met School's IVS program is designed to allow students to work with faculty, mentors, and parents to create their own education plans to further their individual career goals. Tr. 48:17-49:5; 54:22-55:13. Another key aspect of the IVS program is its focus on learning through internship experiences. Tr. 62:9-63:22.

         The Met school requested the District reimburse it for the Chariho residents who attended the school during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. In August 2011, the Superintendent of Schools for the District informed the Met School that the District would only pay tuition and provide transportation for its residents attending the Met School, who were enrolled during the 2010-2011 school year. Aug. 19, 2011 Letter from Barry J. Ricci, Pet'r's Ex. 1.

         After the District failed to provide reimbursement for the District's share of the Chariho students' tuition, on May 28, 2013 the Met School sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting that the Commissioner have the General Treasurer withhold state funding from the District and provide such payment to the Met School pursuant to § 16-7-31. May 28, 2013 Letter to the Commissioner, Pet'r's Ex. 1. Subsequently, the Met School moved for summary judgment. September 12, 2013 Letter from Attorney Matthew R. Plain. In support of its motion, the Met School asserted that it was entitled to reimbursement under § 16-7.2-5 as a matter of law because Section 5.1 of the Regulations of the Board of Regents Governing Career and Technical Education in Rhode Island (Career and Technical Regulations) provided out-of-district students with the right to attend the Met School. Id. at 2. The Met School based its conclusion on the fact that the Met School is "the only RIDE-approved independent vocational studies (IVS) innovation program of study in the state." Id.

         In response, the District contended that summary judgment was inappropriate for the 2011-2012 school year because the Met School had not established that no comparable programs were available closer to the students' residences, as required by the Career and Technical Regulations in effect at that time. As to the 2012-2013 school year, the District asserted that summary judgment should be denied because the current regulations require students to request permission from their local school districts in order to attend a RIDE-approved career and technical program, and that none of the students at issue requested such permission. Additionally, the District asserted that the Commissioner needed to hear evidence regarding the programs available at the Met School to determine if the programs complied with state and federal law.

         On August 18, 2014, the Commissioner granted summary judgment as to the Met School's claim for reimbursement for the 2012-2013 school year but denied summary judgment as to the 2011-2012 school year.[1] Commissioner's Ruling on Mot. Summ. J., Compl. Ex. A, at 5-6. In support of this holding for the 2012-2013 school year, the Commissioner found that the newly adopted Career and Technical Regulations, which became effective on July 1, 2012, clearly and unambiguously provide that

"the only limitations on a student's choice of a RIDE-approved career preparation program are enrollment availability, lack of district transportation for programs outside the student's school transportation region (if the enrollment occurs after September 1, 2012) and program admission standards." Id. at 4.

         The Commissioner further stated that following the Board of Education's adoption of the new Career and Technical Regulations, "students were permitted to choose any RIDE-approved career preparation program in the state. Their choice is not affected by the presence of in-district programs or the preferences of their resident school districts." Id. at 4-5. Thus, the Commissioner concluded that for the 2012-2013 school year, approval from the local school district was only necessary when the student's chosen program was full. Id. at 5. Accordingly, the Commissioner ordered the District "to pay its local share in accordance with § 16-7.2-5 for resident students who chose to attend the Met School in Providence." Id.

         On April 30, 2015, the Commissioner conducted a hearing regarding the Met School's remaining claim for reimbursement for the 2011-2012 school year. Tr. 4:3-5:16. During opening statements, the District raised the issue of whether the Met School meets the statutory and regulatory requirements to be deemed a career and technical education program, and contended that the District is not required to pay the students' tuition if the Met School cannot show that it meets the requirements. Tr. 14:20-19:14. At the hearing, only one witness testified, Joe Battaglia, the Director of Curriculum at the Met School. Tr. 28:7-168:19. Mr. Battaglia testified regarding the details of the Met School's IVS program, including how the program was established and the curriculum design during the 2011-2012 school year. Through his testimony, the District repeatedly objected to Mr. Battaglia's testimony and the introduction of exhibits on relevance grounds asserting that the proffered evidence failed to show that the program constituted career and technical education. The hearing officer overruled the District's relevance objections.

         Following the April 30, 2015 hearing, the District filed a Motion for A Stay and in the Alternative Reconsideration of the Commissioner's decision granting summary judgment for the 2012-2013 school year contending that the Commissioner misinterpreted the Career and Technical Regulations and raising an argument that the Commissioner's previous ruling was erroneous because "the payments sought by the Met School are not 'education funding' under R.I.G.L. 16-7.2-5." On April 12, 2016, the Commissioner issued a decision affirming the original interpretation of Section 5.1 of the Career and Technical Regulations.[2] Comm'r's Decision, Compl. Ex. A, at 3. As to the District's contention that reimbursement was not required because the funds were not for "education purposes," the Commissioner found that it was not the proper time or place for raising a challenge to RIDE's approval of the Met School as a career preparation program. Id. The Commissioner held that "RIDE's approval of a career preparation program will be presumed to be valid in a proceeding under R.I.G.L. 16-7.2-5 to collect overdue payments of local funding for career and technical educational services." Id.

         On May 2, 2016, pursuant to § 16-39-3, the District timely appealed the Commissioner's decision ordering the District to reimburse the Met School for the tuition of the students who resided in the District to the Council. On March 28, 2017, the Council issued a decision affirming the Commissioner's decision and reasoning and finding that the Commissioner's decision was not "patently arbitrary, discriminatory, or unfair." Council's Decision, Compl. Ex. B. Specifically, the Council agreed with the Commissioner's interpretation of § 5.1 of the Career and Technical Regulations. Id. at 3. Additionally, the Council emphasized that RIDE has approved the Met School's IVS program, and challenging such approval through a "collateral attack through the appeals process" is inappropriate. Id.

         On April 25, 2017, pursuant to § 42-35-15, the District timely appealed the Council's decision affirming the Commissioner's decision to this Court. Compl. On appeal, the District asserts that the Council's decision was arbitrary and capricious because it failed to recognize that the Met School does not meet the requirements to be a career and technical program. Specifically, the District contends that the Met School is not entitled to "educational funding" from the District under § 16-7.2-5 unless the Met School can prove that its IVS program meets statutory and regulatory education requirements. Additionally, the District asserts that the Council erroneously interpreted § 5.1 of the Career and Technical Regulations to allow students to choose to attend any career and technical program in the state, regardless of whether the student obtained the District's approval.

         In response, the Met School contends that the Council's decision was not arbitrary or capricious as it was supported by sufficient evidence in the record, and the Council's interpretation was not in error. The Met School also asserts that the Council correctly refused to consider the District's contention that the Met School's IVS program does not meet the requirements to be a career and technical education program. The Met School avers that its IVS program is on the RIDE-approved list of ...


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