PORTLAND – The U.S. Supreme Court will use a Forest Grove case to try again to decide when taxpayers must foot the bill for private schooling for special education students.
The Supreme Court heard a similar case from New York in 2007 but split 4-4.
On Friday, the court agreed to hear an appeal from the Forest Grove School District, which was sued by the family of a former high school student diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The school failed to address properly the student’s learning problems, the parents said, and sought reimbursement for the student’s private schooling.
Federal law calls for school districts to reimburse students or their families for education costs when public schools do not have services that address or fulfill the students’ needs.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s special education students are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.”
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school district says students should at least give public special education programs a try before seeking reimbursement for private school tuition.
“We just believe we have a comprehensive offering in our school district,” said Jack Musser, Forest Grove superintendent. “We have programs in our special education department to address every type of disability. We educate many, many students.”
Paying for special education students’ private education would financially strain the district, said school officials, who also added the teen’s problem sprang at least in part from a marijuana habit. In court papers, the student is identified only as T.A.
Mary Broadhurst, the family’s lawyer, declined to comment except to say that arguments are set for April and a decision is expected in June.
“My clients are still of the position that this is a private matter to some extent,” she said.
When the family took the district to court, an administrative judge ruled in the family’s favor, saying the district failed to recognize the teen’s poor performance as a disability and offer him proper services.
The judge ordered the Forest Grove district to pay legal fees and reimburse the 19-year-old’s family for about $65,000 in tuition and fees at Mt. Bachelor Academy, a Prineville boarding school for students with learning problems.
The teen spent 18 months at the academy, graduated in 2004 and enrolled in a community college.
School officials appealed the order to U.S. District Court, which ruled the Forest Grove district was not liable for the fees. The family took the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in their favor.
Musser said the district has spent more than $100,000 on legal fees for the case.
“Whether we are in tough economic times or not, we need to watch every penny,” he said. “People having their choice of placing anywhere and coming back to the district to seek payment is a very huge financial impact on the school district.”
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