CROSS RIVER, N.Y. The Katonah-Lewisboro School District must pay more than $181,000 to a local family in a case involving out-of-district tuition, a U.S. District Court has ruled.
The family sued the school district because it refused to pay $25,000 in out-of-district tuition to the Maplebrook School for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years. Maplebrook, located in Amenia, N.Y., is a boarding and day school for students with learning differences and/or attention deficit disorder.
School Board President Mark Lipton said the district believed it was capable of providing the same services to the student and was supported by a U.S. Department of Education law known as FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education for Students with Disabilities).
A state review officer and the lower courts sided with the district, but this month the federal court split its decision, finding that the district was correct in withholding payment for the 2006-07 school year, but found for the family for 2007-08, using what Lipton described as subjective criteria.
As a result, the district was ordered to pay the tuition for the 2007-08 school year approximately $25,000, plus more than $156,000 in legal fees to the familys attorney.
Peter D. Hoffman, the family's attorney, said it was the school boards fault that the case went as far as it did.
The parents initially asked the board for a program within the school district or a state-approved program or a BOCES program, he said. The district wouldnt agree to do that. Instead, the district offered a program that was not appropriate, and the family was forced to place the child in Maplebrook. If they would have worked with the parents in a meaningful way, this would not have happened.
Lipton said district officials and the school board continue to believe the state review officer and lower courts properly rejected the familys claim.
What is really unfortunate is the existing laws in these matters, he said. Simple success on a $25,000 claim entitles the claimant to all legal fees, no matter how small the recovery. The fact that our taxpayers are on the hook for more than $156,000 in plaintiffs attorney fees, plus additional future settlement on appeals costs estimated at $57,000, plus our own legal fees, is outrageous.
Lipton criticized the laws that led to the courts decision and said it hurts the districts educational goals.
The fact that someone can simply force a district to spend huge amounts of money in legal fees to defend its position represents, in my view, a defect in the law, he said. It takes money from the classroom and diverts these scarce funds to legal fees.
Hoffman agreed with Liptons assessment of the consequences of the courts decision, but blamed the district for letting it get to this point.
In a way, [Lipton] is right, he said. The taxpayers are being damaged. But its not the family and its not me. The reality is the school district takes a hard-headed approach to all these matters and thinks that theyll win. This time they didnt. It could have been resolved so much easier, and that's the tragedy.
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