NARRAGANSETT—Superintendent of Schools Katherine Sipala briefed the School Committee Wednesday evening on the Rhode Island Superior Court’s decision concerning select school systems refusal of payment for the Rhode Island School of the Deaf. In July, Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist issued a court order against a number of school systems in order to recoup monies withheld by those schools in order to fund tuition fees for the School for the Deaf.
Narragansett School System, Smithfield Public Schools, Coventry Public Schools, Bristol Warren Regional School District, North Kingstown Public School District, and Warwick Public School District, were all named in a June 3 order to State Treasurer Gina Raimondo from Commissioner Gist. The order directed Raimondo and her office to withhold state aid from these school systems until they pay the tuition which the Department of Educations deems they owe to the RI School of Deaf.
“We don’t have any students at the school of deaf anymore, so we are talking about past dollars,” said Narragansett Superintendent of Schools Katherine Sipala in July. “We are going to take the risk because it is not a huge amount of state aid, but this is a very important principle and we will see this case through.”
“Exceptionally important for the future that we fight hard on this,” she added.
Narragansett School System would have potentially owed $20,967.39, leaving an operational budget of 62,210.61. All of the school systems, however, filed a Rhode Island Supreme Court injunction against Commissioner Gist’s office objecting to payment of past costs which they felt should not have been charged.
The case was brought before Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter on August 23, who ultimately rejected the school systems’ injunction and ruled against the arguments of their attorney, David A. Kane of Taylor, Duane, Barton, and Gilman, LLP. Commissioner Gist’s office subsequently withheld state aid to the school systems, while at the same time requiring the initial payment of $20, 967.39 for the School of the Deaf.
“We were disappointed by the decision, and our state aid did decrease,” said Sipala.
Sipala noted, however, that the school systems, through their legal counsels have continued their dialogue with Commissioner Gist’s legal office in order to try and give those schools a greater voice in the decision process of doling out payments to the School of the Deaf.
“In the past, parents could just call up the School for the Deaf and place their child there, and we were not invested in it because we didn’t pay tuition fees,” said Sipala. “If we have to pay, we want parents to come and sit with our entire team to discuss the best placement of their child in the least restrictive environment. That is our responsibility, but we have never before had this level of conversation.”
“That is not decided, but we are both open to discussion,” she added. “We just want to make sure that the conversation happens with all the people at the table, and if a parents agree to place their child in school here or at the School of the Deaf, at least we have discussed it.”
Sipala also discussed the possibility of some form of rebate on the state aid they’ve lost from Gist’s punitive measures.
“We are hoping for some forgiveness,” said Sipala. “The schools’ legal group will talk with George Muksian, Legal Council Chief for the Department of Education, and as they work on a new chart for tuition fees at the School of the Deaf, they will ask for forgiveness. Nothing is final, but I am optimistic.”