West Mifflin board agrees to proceed with unfair compensation lawsuit
West Mifflin Area school directors have authorized filing a lawsuit against the state Department of Education and the Commonwealth for what the school board said is unfair compensation for Duquesne students the district had to take on beginning in 2007, as well as inequality of related financial matters.
The board voted 7-0 at a special meeting on Monday to approve the litigation that school director Phil Shar said he's been fighting two years to file.
School director Michael Price was absent, and school director Richard Crux left the meeting prior to the vote.
“I've been fighting for two years to get this lawsuit filed,” Shar said. “We've jumped through every hoop possible. We talked with (Duquesne City School District state-appointed receiver) Paul Long. We had a meeting with our legislators. (Superintendent Daniel) Castagna talked to the education committee. We've met with (acting state Department of Education secretary) Carolyn Dumaresq. We've waited for the (state) budget hoping (more money) would be there, and it's just not gonna be there.”
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.
West Mifflin Area has 260 Duquesne students in its 3,200 total enrollment.
Castagna said Duquesne pays $10,800 per student, but it costs roughly $16,000 to educate each one.
Castagna said the Duquesne students are performing well academically, and criticized the state for putting money into failing programs and not rewarding success.
“Because we're having success, we don't feel we've been fairly compensated,” he said. “It's hard as a board member and as an administrator to see what we're doing and watch what's happening next door with all the money the state's (giving to Duquesne).”
In the lawsuit, the district intends to challenge Duquesne teachers' seniority as well as request that Title 1 funds for seventh and eighth grade be sent to West Mifflin and not Duquesne. Duquesne only has students in kindergarten though sixth grade. Shar said West Mifflin Area is required to hire a Duquesne teacher if that school district lets him or her go.
He gave the example of a teacher with many years of experience making around $100,000 in Duquesne coming to West Mifflin at that pay scale.
Shar said it prevents West Mifflin Area from hiring a new teacher at a base pay of less than $50,000, and wants the state to subsidize the other $50,000.
The Title 1 issue may be resolved prior to the suit being filed. Shar said he will pull that request from the legal documents should that be the case.
Solicitor George Gobel said he estimated the cost of the lawsuit to be around $20,000.
“I think you can win it,” Gobel said. “I think the political environment is probably going to be more favorable now than it was a year ago.”
Board president Judy Andzelik was against filing the lawsuit prior to the vote.
“I think it's the most ludicrous thing to try and sue the state,” Andzelik said. “Suing the state is going to get you absolutely nowhere.”
Andzelik noted district officials reached out to East Allegheny about joining a class action suit against the state, and East Allegheny declined.
She explained her change of heart after the meeting.
“It's something that I know probably has to be done, but I don't see it being resolved quickly,” Andzelik said. “If the board as a majority wants to go ahead and spend the initial $20,000, we'll take a shot at it. I'm not opposed to compromise.”
The lawsuit was not on the agenda.
Shar made the motion to file the lawsuit after hearing concerns from resident Glenn Cerra and other attendees about West Mifflin Area's taxes being raised while Duquesne City School District's millage remains stagnant.
West Mifflin Area's board unanimously adopted a $50.3 million 2014-2015 budget in June with a tax hike of more than 4 mills.
Its 2013-2014 budget called for a 3.122-mill tax decrease, to remain revenue-neutral under the 2013 Allegheny County reassessment.
The combined real estate tax millage rate for 2014-15 is 24.4965 mills.
Castagna said the tax increase was the only way the district could maintain offering high quality education to its students.
West Mifflin Area business manager Dennis Cmar said the average median value of a home is $68,800, and the hike equates to approximately $285 more in taxes for those households.
For Duquesne City School District, Long approved a $17,195,637 budget in June, maintaining the district's 17.5-mill property tax rate.
West Mifflin Area school directors voted to authorize Gobel to prepare to file the lawsuit in September 2013.
Gobel announced his intent to resign effective at the end of August after a motion made to fire him on Monday night failed.
He said he does have a partial file prepared, and will assist whomever the board decides to replace him next month, stating the lawsuit would take more than three weeks to file.
Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or firstname.lastname@example.org.