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May 6, 2009 1:25 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Sending districts might sue Westhampton Beach for refund

May 6, 2009 1:25 PM

Three area school districts that send students to Westhampton Beach High School might join together to sue the Westhampton Beach School District for charging too much in tuition payments for the 2007-08 school year.

Westhampton Beach collectively owes about $550,000 in tuition refunds to the East Moriches, Remsenburg/Speonk and East Quogue school districts, according to New York State officials.

Westhampton Beach is refusing to refund the money, pending the outcome of a lawsuit it filed against Richard Mills, commissioner of the New York State Department of Education. The suit claims that changes Mr. Mills made to the so called Seneca Falls formula, which the state uses to calculate how much school districts should charge for tuition for out-of-district students and which took effect this year, were not in compliance with existing state regulations. It also charges that the state department should have been required to hold public hearings on the changes.

A spokesman for the Department of Education did not return calls for comment.

The East Moriches School Board at an emergency meeting on Monday morning authorized the district’s attorneys to file a lawsuit against Westhampton Beach seeking a $175,000 refund. Remsenburg/Speonk and East Quogue officials are considering joining East Moriches in the suit. Remsenburg/Speonk and East Quogue claim they are owed $115,000 and $260,000, respectively.

“We have no hard feelings against the district. It is just that business is business,” East Moriches School Board President Gary Grunseich said during Monday’s meeting.

Mr. Mills made changes to the way tuition payments are calculated, basing those payments on student enrollment rather than average attendance, similar to the way the state calculates state education aid. The new formula lowers the amount a district can charge sending districts in tuition. This hurts Westhampton Beach financially, but benefits its sending districts. Under the new formula, Westhampton Beach’s tuition rate was decreased from about $18,000 per student to about $17,300 per student.

Westhampton Beach Superintendent of Schools Lynn Schwartz said that his district has a hearing scheduled in New York State Supreme Court in Riverhead on May 29, where district attorneys will challenge the new formula.

Westhampton Beach has already refunded about $900,000 to its five sending districts—the three in the lawsuit plus Quogue and Tuckahoe—for overpayments in tuition fees that were based on rates established before the formula change took effect.

If the court upholds the changes to the tuition formula, “the district would lose in the area of $600,000 per year in tuition,” Mr. Schwartz said. “In a $47 million budget, that is significant.”

East Moriches Superintendent of Schools Dr. Charles T. Russo described the changes to the formula as “fair,” and said that Westhampton Beach owes his district $175,000. In the 2007-08 school year, 236 East Moriches students attended Westhampton Beach.

“It’s protecting the East Moriches taxpayers’ rights to say that we believe we are owed more money and we want a refund,” Dr. Russo said of the board’s decision to file the lawsuit. “Both districts, we have a great relationship and will continue to have a great relationship. This is just a matter of doing business.”

Remsenburg/Speonk Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathy Salomone said her district is owed $115,000 as a result of the change to the formula and is considering joining East Moriches in the lawsuit. About 145 Remsenburg/Speonk students attended Westhampton Beach in 2007-08.

“If we are owed money, then we need to follow through with getting a refund,” Dr. Salomone said. “I think what’s fair is that the taxpayers get reimbursed, according to the state’s decision.”

The East Quogue School Board was expected on Tuesday to adopt a resolution allowing it to join in a lawsuit with the other school districts, Superintendent of Schools Les Black said. He said East Quogue is owed $260,000 and had about 450 students enrolled in Westhampton Beach two years ago.

Last month, “we sent a letter to Westhampton that refuted the tuition rate,” Mr. Black said.

Quogue School officials have yet to take a stance on the suit, according to Superintendent of Schools Richard Benson. Officials from Tuckahoe did not return calls for comment.

Westhampton Beach School Board President Aram Terchunian said relations would not be negatively impacted were East Moriches and other districts to file suit.

“I have the greatest respect for the East Moriches School Board and I am sure they are operating in the best interest of their taxpayers,” Mr. Terchunian said. “The relationship with East Moriches has been very strong, it is very strong and it will continue to be very strong.”

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said he agreed with Westhampton Beach’s argument that the Department of Education did not properly seek public comment on the changes.

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