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Story - Education

Mar 29, 2010 2:01 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach School District loses lawsuit, will have to refund $585K in tuition overpayments

Mar 29, 2010 2:01 PM

The Westhampton Beach School Board learned this week that it must return $585,000 in tuition fees that the state said it overcharged its five sending districts during the 2007-08 school year.

School Superintendent Lynn Schwartz announced at Monday night’s School Board meeting that the district recently lost a lawsuit it had filed in March 2009 against the State Education Department, charging that state officials made mistakes in the way they calculate how much a district like Westhampton Beach can charge its sending districts in tuition. If the district decides not to appeal within the next 30 days, Westhampton Beach will have to pay back what it overcharged in 2007-08, though it was not immediately clear when that will happen.

In February 2009, the Education Department changed the way it calculates what is known as the Seneca Falls formula, a statewide system that determines tuition payments, and made the change retroactive to the 2007-08 school year. The formula, which is named after an upstate school district, previously calculated tuition rates based on the average daily attendance of students, but now bases the tuition figure on total enrollment.

Due to the modification, Westhampton Beach should have only charged its five sending districts—East Moriches, Remsenburg/Speonk, Quogue, East Quogue and Tuckahoe—$17,300 a year for each student being educated in Westhampton Beach schools starting in the 2007-08 school year. The district had been charging approximately $18,000 per student before last year’s formula change.

Mr. Schwartz said he learned that the district had lost its lawsuit last Thursday, March 18, even though the ruling issued by New York State Supreme Court Justice Gerald Connolly was dated March 12. The Westhampton Beach School Board has 30 days from that date to decide whether or not to appeal.

“We’re going to review our options and make a decision,” said Aram Terchunian, the president of the Westhampton Beach School Board.

Mr. Schwartz announced that the district had lost its lawsuit after Mark Raynor, a former Westhampton Beach Village trustee, asked about the status of the suit during Monday night’s board meeting.

In his ruling, Justice Connolly said that the points raised in the school district’s lawsuit, such as those questioning the reasoning behind altering the state formula, were “without merit.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Terchunian said he disagreed with the ruling. “It’s unfortunate,” he said.

Tuition payments account for about 40 percent of the Westhampton Beach School District’s $47.8 million operating budget for the current school year, according to Mr. Schwartz. In next year’s $49 million spending plan, which was approved by the School Board on Monday night, Westhampton Beach expects to collect an estimated $20 million in tuition payments from its sending districts, according to a copy of the budget.

The silver lining, if there is one for Westhampton Beach, is that School Board members set aside $585,000 in this year’s school budget in anticipation of possibly losing the lawsuit, according to Mr. Schwartz. Still, he defended his district’s grounds for filing it in the first place, explaining that state officials altered the formula without first notifying school officials.

“We were told after the fact,” he said. “We just felt that it was unfair.”

Jane Briggs, a spokeswoman for the State Education Department, confirmed via e-mail that the State Supreme Court upheld the actions taken by her department. She did not immediately return requests for additional information about the lawsuit or the reasons for changing the formula.

The East Moriches, Remsenburg/Speonk and East Quogue school districts sued the Westhampton Beach School District last year in an attempt to get the money that was owed them. The Quogue and Tuckahoe school districts did not join the suit.

On Wednesday, Charles Russo, the superintendant of the East Moriches School District, which sends about 250 students to Westhampton Beach High School, said the lawsuit filed by the three sending districts will remain in “a holding pattern” until Westhampton Beach decides whether or not to appeal.

While he did not have an exact amount in terms of the refund that is due his district, Dr. Russo previously estimated that East Moriches was owed about $175,000 in overpayments made to Westhampton Beach.

Les Black, the superintendant of the East Quogue School District, which sends approximately 450 middle and high school-age students to Westhampton Beach schools, said Tuesday that he was delighted by the court’s decision. He then added that he was not “going to jump and down for glee” until Westhampton Beach decides if it will file an appeal. “It’s tempered joy,” Mr. Black said.

Though he also did not have an exact dollar amount handy this week, Mr. Black said during an interview last year that Westhampton Beach owes East Quogue approximately $260,000 in tuition overpayments made during the 2007-08 school year.

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How can someone say they are not clear how it happened???
By sjd (420), Westhampton Beach on Mar 30, 10 3:39 PM
The party is over!!!
By nellie (451), sag harbor on Apr 1, 10 8:24 PM