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West Mifflin Area preparing to file lawsuit against state

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By Tim Karan
Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 3:16 a.m.
 

West Mifflin Area School District is preparing to file a lawsuit against the state Department of Education for what the school board deems unfair compensation for Duquesne students the district had to take on beginning in 2007 and inequality between the way public and charter schools receive funds.

The board voted on Thursday to authorize its solicitor to prepare the suit, on which the board is to vote again before filing.

State mandates dating back to 2007 first required the transfer of ninth- through 12th-grade students from Duquesne to West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny schools. Beginning in 2012-13, the law was reinterpreted to include seventh- and eighth-graders.

District officials said the root of the issue is the discrepancy between what the state pays the district in regard to special education students who attend public schools as opposed to charter schools and Title I federal funds that should be provided to Duquesne students now attending West Mifflin Area.

“When we accepted the Duquesne students, we've never been happy with the financial arrangement,” board president Phil Shar said. “If a Duquesne special ed student comes to West Mifflin, we get about $10,000 — maybe a little more. But if that same special ed student goes to a charter school, that school gets $24,000 or $25,000. To me, that isn't fair.”

Shar said the district has about 70 Duquesne students in special education programs.

“If you take that $24,000 or $25,000 and multiply that by 70 students, we've got a million dollars,” he said. “And that could be every year from now on.”

Shar said Title I federal funds that should be provided to Duquesne students attending West Mifflin Area are currently being given to the Duquesne City School District.

“We found out that if a Duquesne student goes to a charter school, his Title I money follows him,” Shar said. “But if he comes to West Mifflin, it doesn't follow him. We're just asking to be fully funded just like the charter schools.”

Inequality between public and charter school funding is a huge concern of Superintendent Daniel Castagna.

“If the same student can go to school one place and carry a dollar amount, that's the dollar amount they should carry no matter where they attend,” Castagna said. “The state makes up these rules and sets these dollar amounts and nobody can give us an explanation as to why it should be different 10 miles this way or 10 miles that way.”

Shar estimated that the worst-case scenario of a failed lawsuit would cost the district about $15,000-$20,000 in legal fees. But to him, it seems like a risk worth taking.

“We've been talking about this for a while now and I think it's the time to say, ‘Let's go see what happens,'” he said. “All we want is our fair share.”

The board voted 4-5 against hiring Jeffrey Smith as high school baseball coach. In August the board voted to open longtime coach Jeff Kuzma's position.

The vote was met with a smattering of applause from members of the audience. When one board member suggested that the job is still Kuzma's, Castagna said, “We currently don't have a baseball coach.”

Further action is expected to take place at an athletic committee meeting.

Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or tkaran@tribweb.com.

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