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School boards engaged in legal action

By Matthew Sockol
Staff Writer

The Upper Freehold Regional School District Board of Education has filed a legal action against the Millstone Township K-8 School District Board of Education.

The two districts have a long-standing relationship in which students of high school age who reside in Millstone Township can attend Allentown High School in the Upper Freehold Regional School District. Millstone Township is paying $12,433 during the 2015-16 school year for each Millstone resident who attends Allentown.

The lawsuit, which was submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) in April, concerns the Millstone board paying tuition for Millstone residents who enroll in specialized programs at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver. Upper Freehold Regional claims the payment of that tuition is unlawful.

The lawsuit was preceded by a verified petition submitted by Stephen Fogarty, who represents Upper Freehold Regional, that requested Commissioner of Education David Hespe to consider an alleged controversy prompted by Millstone’s tuition payments to Red Bank Regional.

According to the petition, 16 students from Millstone currently attend Red Bank Regional and Millstone is charged $13,900 for each student who attends Red Bank Regional.

The petition alleges that Millstone has no legal basis to have its students attend Red Bank Regional at Millstone’s expense. According to the petition, Millstone is only permitted to pay the tuition to Red Bank Regional if Allentown High School does not provide instruction in a particular course of study which a student intends to pursue.

Information provided in the petition states that of the 16 students from Millstone who attend Red Bank Regional High School, two students attend the school’s Academy of Finance, two students attend the Academy of Information Technology, four students attend the Academy of Engineering, seven students attend the Visual and Performing Arts Academy and one student attends a culinary program.

The petition claims Allentown High School provides instruction in the courses of study the Millstone students are pursuing at Red Bank Regional. According to the petition, Allentown also has an arts academy and an engineering academy, and while it does not have academies dedicated to finance and information technology, it offers courses in each subject, along with culinary courses.

As alleged by the petition, Millstone’s payment to Red Bank Regional has deprived Upper Freehold Regional of $198,928 in tuition income for the 2015-16 school year.

The petition requests Hespe to do the following:

• Issue an order that will instruct Millstone to no longer send and Red Bank Regional to no longer receive students residing in Millstone whose tuition was paid for by Millstone;

• Instruct Millstone to no longer pay for the tuition of its high school students to attend institutions other than Allentown High School for courses offered by Upper Freehold Regional;

• Direct Millstone to pay damages to Upper Freehold Regional for the students who attended Red Bank Regional instead of Allentown High School;

• Provide any additional relief he determines.

Attorney Vito Gagliardi, who represents the Millstone school board, said Upper Freehold Regional’s legal action is spiteful and without merit.

According to Gagliardi, the lawsuit was filed shortly after a DOE report was issued which criticized programs for special education students from Millstone in Allentown High School. He said the lawsuit was filed without direct notice to Millstone.

Gagliardi said the Millstone board has paid for Millstone residents to attend Red Bank Regional with Upper Freehold Regional’s knowledge for more than 10 years and that Upper Freehold Regional has resisted Millstone’s efforts to learn more about programs for its students at Allentown.

The Monmouth County Superintendent of Schools has approved Millstone’s tuition payment to Red Bank Regional in its budget and has approved the tuition received in Regional Bank Regional’s budget, according to Gagliardi. Additionally, he said other school districts have paid for their students to attend Red Bank Regional.

“The lawsuit is designed to disrupt the educational program of 16 innocent students from Millstone at Red Bank Regional,” Gagliardi said.

Disagreements concerning the number of Millstone residents enrolling in Allentown High School have prompted further discord between the Millstone and Upper Freehold Regional boards.

A projection of the number of Millstone residents who will attend Allentown is submitted by Dec. 15 preceding the upcoming school year (i.e., nine months before the next school year), according to Millstone Superintendent of Schools Scott Feder.

In December 2013, a projection indicated that 606 Millstone residents would enroll at Allentown for the 2014-15 school year. The actual number of Millstone residents attending Allentown in 2014-15 was 648, which created a deficit of $522,186 for Upper Freehold Regional and caused Millstone to owe $511,000 in tuition adjustment.

For the 2016-17 school year, Millstone has projected that 588 Millstone residents will enroll in Allentown, but Upper Freehold Regional projected the number to be 621. The difference in the projected enrollment prompted the Upper Freehold Regional board to deny a two-year payment plan requested by Millstone for the money owned from the 2014-15 projection.

According to Upper Freehold Regional board President Patricia Hogan, Upper Freehold Regional maintains that its projection of 621 students is a close estimate. Hogan said the projection of 588 students will create a deficit of $413,358 (33 students x $12,526 tuition per pupil) and she said approving the two-year payment plan Millstone sought will create an additional deficit of $261,903 at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

In a presentation shown on May 9, Millstone used current figures to project an enrollment of 590 Millstone residents at Allentown for 2016-17.

According to Millstone board President Margaret Gordon, the two boards had agreed to schedule a joint meeting for May 16. After the lawsuit was filed, Gordon said, legal counsel advised that a joint meeting should be delayed until the pending litigation is resolved.

Hogan maintains that pending litigation should not delay a joint meeting of the two school boards.

“Upper Freehold Regional sees a lot of value in a joint board meeting with Millstone, as we can clear up questions, concerns and misinformation on both sides,” Hogan said. “There is no reason to delay because of pending litigation. I believe leadership should be directing the board’s actions in both districts to meet as there really is no potential downside.”

Gordon also spoke favorably of a joint meeting, but maintains it will not occur until the lawsuit is settled.

“We look forward to working with all of our stakeholders, including the Upper Freehold Regional board, once all legal claims between the parties have been resolved or litigated to their conclusion,” Gordon said.

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