Rhode Island Supreme Court upholds funding formula for firm’s charter school client

PROVIDENCE (June 10, 2011) – Matt Plain and Tim Groves recently persuaded the Rhode Island Supreme Court to order a local school district to reimburse the firm’s client, a local independent public charter school, for tuition payments the district had wrongfully withheld under a mistaken interpretation of state law.

The Supreme Court held that the Rhode Island Charter Public School Act requires quarterly payments based on the actual number of students attending a charter school. The court noted that this interpretation of the law is consistent with the state Legislature’s intent to improve public school education in part by fostering diverse public education options and innovative learning environments at charter schools.

A school district’s funding contributions should match the actual number of students enrolled in a charter school in order to avoid unfair financial burdens on either a charter school or the school district, the court said in upholding a ruling by the Rhode Island Board of Regents.

Prior to October 2009, the Chariho Regional School District, like all local school districts in Rhode Island, had paid tuition to public charter schools based on the number of Chariho students that were actually enrolled in the respective charter schools at the time. But Chariho abruptly ceased paying tuition in this manner to the firm’s client, The Compass School, as well as another charter school, Kingston Hill Academy. Chariho opted instead to recalculate its tuition obligation based on enrollment in a “reference year” that the Rhode Island Department of Education uses to determine the state’s quarterly tuition payments to charter schools.

Because the “reference year” is based on enrollments from two years prior to the current school year, and the number of Chariho students enrolled in both Compass and Kingston Hill had increased significantly, Chariho’s recalculation had potentially dire financial implications for the charters.

Plain and Groves convinced the Supreme Court that Chariho’s self-serving reinterpretation of the state’s charter school funding statute (R.I.G.L. § 16-77.1-2) was contrary to the statute’s language as well as legislative intent.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court upheld our client’s argument, and are gratified that charter schools will be assured of the funding that is so necessary to support the important work that they do,” said Plain.

Added Groves: “Our client’s position was consistent with the letter and the spirit of the charter school funding statute. This decision confirms that a school district must fund a charter school based on the number of students from that district who are enrolled in that charter school, no more and no less.”

About Barton Gilman

Barton Gilman maintains an active school law practice, and is one of New England’s leading civil litigation law firms with offices in Boston and Providence. Its experienced trial attorneys appear regularly in the federal and state courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. It has an active The Providence Business News has named the firm as one of Rhode Island’s Best Places to Work for four consecutive years (2008-2011).