New Castle News

July 23, 2013

New Castle Schools: District won’t release names in tuition issue

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The New Castle Area School District has hired a Pittsburgh law firm for legal expertise regarding a recent audit finding.

Based upon the advice of Andrews & Price LLC, Superintendent John Sarandrea wrote a letter to the New Castle News denying the newspaper’s request for the names of district employees whose children allegedly attended city schools but were not district residents.

The letter was dated July 16 and received by The News in the mail yesterday.

The final audit report of the state Auditor General’s office issued in June showed that seven non-resident students attended district schools but did not pay tuition over the course of four years.

The names of the district employees were not included in the audit finding, which criticized the district for failing to collect tuition for those students.

The district, however, received $110,664 worth of subsidy for those students who had been counted as district residents, and it has to pay that money back to the state.

The audit covered Feb. 2, 2010, through Sept. 12, 2012.

“Pursuant to the state’s Right to Know Law, the records requested do not exist and/or the school district is not required to create a record nor to answer questions,” Sarandrea wrote in refusing to provide the employees’ names.

His letter added that the request also is denied because any such records are an agency relating to a non-criminal investigation.

In response to the denial, The News has contacted the state Office of Open Records for legal clarification.



LEGAL ADVICE

Sarandrea said yesterday that the Andrews & Price firm was hired after the district’s solicitor, Charles Sapienza, recused himself from representing the district in the audit matter because of a conflict of interest.

An attempt to reach Sapienza yesterday afternoon was unsuccessful.

Sarandrea said the circumstances were discussed in an executive session.

“The first item of business that we gave them was to find out what they recommended regarding the (New Castle News) right-to-know request,” he said.

The law firm also will be addressing the board about its options and potential actions regarding the audit finding.

Andrews & Price will be used for special counsel as needed, Sarandrea said, “when we need a quick action and interpretation and the board would like to use them.”

The district’s school board will convene for a special public meeting at 6 p.m. Monday. At that time, Andrews & Price attorneys plan to meet in executive session with the board to discuss the tuition finding issue, Sarandrea said.

“We’re going to be discussing names and what they owed, and which employees registered them, and so forth. All of those issues are protected by the Sunshine Act,” Sarandrea said.

He expects that shortly thereafter, the attorneys will come out with a recommendation for the district to follow.

At Monday’s meeting, the board also will be expected to vote on the law firm’s pay, which will be $130 per hour with no retainer, Sarandrea said.



FUTURE DECISIONS

Sarandrea said that he also is interested in addressing what the district can do to prevent the tuition noncompliance matter from occurring in the future.

“We can’t have findings of this nature again.”

Sarandrea noted that the money the district owes to the state Department of Education in subsidy is actually more — by about $30,000 — than what the district can collect from the families of the seven students in back tuition.

 The district in May 2009 voted to reduce the tuition for pre-kindergarten out-of-district parents to $3,100. In March of 2010, it reduced it again to $3,000 and further reduced that by half for cases where there were multiple children from the same family, according to records provided by district business manager Joe Ambrosini.

Those rates held for 2010-11, and in 2011-12, they were reduced further to $1,500 per child and to $750 for cases with multiple children in the same family.

Those rates have held since then.

Ambrosini estimated that the amount owed to the district by the parents, with the reduced rates applied, is $80,172.

That indicates that at least some of the non-resident students attending without paying were in pre-kindergarten.

“The auditor general’s numbers were simply based on what the per pupil expenditure is,” Sarandrea said, adding the auditors would not know about the discounted rates passed by the board “unless they specifically looked for it.”  

He explained that the district still must repay the $110,664 to the state, because the district received that subsidy for those students.

“It has no bearing on our payback,” he said. The discounted total “is only the amount we can legally recover based on our own policies. The error took place when we received subsidy for the (the students) when they were not residents.”

Because the parents of the non-resident students are school employees, the district now must discuss with them how to proceed regarding employee status and the tuition issue, Sarandrea indicated.

 “When all of this is resolved, we will put together a package and send it to the auditor general about how this has been resolved and what we are going to do from this time forward.”

(Have a question or a news tip? Contact reporter Debbie Wachter at dwachter@ncnewsonline.com.)