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Croydon Loses Tuition Ruling

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2016 12:00:15 AM
Modified: 8/2/2016 2:32:37 PM

Croydon — A Superior Court judge last week ruled against the Croydon School Board in a dispute with state officials over whether the board may use tax money to pay private-school tuition.

On Friday, Judge Brian Tucker granted the New Hampshire Department of Education’s request for a permanent injunction barring the practice.

Assistant Attorney General Anne Edwards, who argued the state’s side of the case, said the judge’s decision matched state officials’ understanding of the law.

“The court interprets New Hampshire law as the Department of Education does,” she said in an email. “The Croydon students can still attend the private school during the 2016-17 school year, but the tuition cannot be paid with public funds.

“Having private school tuition paid with public funds is a matter for the Legislature to consider,” she added.

In the 2015-16 school year, Croydon sent four students — two of them the children of a sitting board member — to the private Newport Montessori School. Taxpayers funded the arrangement at a cost of about $8,000 per student, for a total of $32,000.

After Friday’s ruling, the School Board plans to take the matter to the state Supreme Court, a board member said.

“We’re going to appeal,” Jody Underwood, the board secretary and school-choice liaison, said on Monday.

Although she noted that she was not a lawyer, Underwood said the judge had misinterpreted the law. “I personally feel like it’s a political decision,” she said.

Tucker’s 11-page ruling said that the law did not give the board the authority to fund a private education with public money without going through an approval process with the state.

“Parents, of course, have the right to enroll their child in a private school and pay the tuition,” he wrote. “But for the reasons given, the Croydon School Board and its members do not have the power to grant the unilateral right to reassign their child … to a private school, and provide public financial support for them to do so.”

If New Hampshire’s highest court takes the case, the dispute could continue into the next school year. For that reason, Underwood said, the School Board plans to file a stay of the injunction pending their appeal, so that any children they place in private school can stay there until the case reaches resolution.

“It’s about the children,” she said, so the board is seeking to avoid removing the students from school only to put them back in if they win an appeal. “Really? Do we want to move middle-school kids back and forth like that?”

Underwood said that if the state ended up winning the case, the families would have a choice to pay the private-school tuition if they could afford it, or else choose a public school. She said she anticipated the town would pay the tuition if children were already in private school.

Although enrollment has not yet been finalized, Underwood said the same four children as last year likely would stay at the Montessori school. One or two others also were thinking of attending, she said.

Representing a town with a population of 764, the Croydon School Board has considerably less resources than the state. The board launched an online crowdfunding campaign that raised thousands of dollars to fund its Superior Court battle.

This time around, Underwood said, “We would have to look for money again.”

The Croydon School Board also is seeking support from the town.

Later this week, board members will hold a public hearing to ask for residents’ approval of the court case’s next step.

Underwood mentioned that some residents — a small group of them, she said — did not support the board’s school-choice stance, and asked as many residents as possible to attend the meeting.

“We want to be advised by the town and not by a small, vocal minority,” she said.

Those opposed include former Selectboard members and participants in the area’s parent-teacher organization.

The hearing will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Croydon town hall.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.




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