City joins lawsuit against Bridgeport for sudden tuition fees

The Shelton Board of Education voted to join a Stratford-led lawsuit against Bridgeport challenging its sudden decision to charge tuition fees to towns that send students to Fairchild Wheeler Magnet School in the Park City.

Bridgeport’s move would cost Shelton an estimated $350,000

On Wednesday March 23, the Shelton school board voted 8-0 with one abstention to “fight” Bridgeport’s unexpected tuition fees in court.

“Essentially we feel that Bridgeport is trying to change the rules,” said Shelton Board of Ed Chairman Mark Holden. “When that school was opened up, the understanding was that since the state was paying to build the school, and the state was also providing considerable funding to run the school, that suburban communities, such as Shelton, wouldn’t be expected to tuition for their students. And now they’re looking to change the deal since we have a bunch of kids there.”

The Shelton school board approved the payment of $2,500 for the next two fiscal years, $5,000 in total, for attorney fees. According to Shelton Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet, the amount each community is contributing to the lawsuit has not been made public, but the agreed total Shelton will pay allows the city to participate in the case with little risk.

Along with Shelton, Trumbull and Monroe have also joined Stratford’s lawsuit against Bridgeport.

Stratford would receive the highest tuition bill, which would exceed $600,000, from Bridgeport due to the number of students attending Fairchild Wheeler Magnet School. Bridgeport is attempting to charge cities an estimated $3,000 for each student a community sends to its magnet school from out-of-district.

The estimated $350,000 Shelton would be charged for is an accumulated cost of Bridgeport running its magnet school, as well as the 120 or so students the city sends out-of-district to the school, Holden said.

It’s not fair so we’re fighting it

According to Board of Ed Vice Chairman Arlene Liscinsky, Bridgeport must have researched a loophole with the state Department of Education which allowed them to bill districts that send students to the magnet school.

Shelton school board member David Gioiello abstained from the vote. Gioiello raised questions about the risk factor of losing the case or having one of the other communities backing out of the lawsuit.

Clouet said he spoke with the legal counsel that typically represents Shelton’s board of ed and although it isn’t possible to predict the outcome of the case, “there’s reason to believe to believe that the way the law was originally written did not include the ability of Bridgeport to charge districts.”

Clouet also explained that each district involved in the lawsuit would have the choice either 100% accept a settlement, should one take place, but much discussion in executive session would need to take place before anything is formally announced.

“The city’s attorney shares concern that this is unfair and understands that the city would want to ‘push back on it’,” said Clouet.

Holden also clarified that each community is only responsible for their agreed upon fees when joining the lawsuit and that if the city filed an independent lawsuit its usual attorneys would handle it.

“Shelton lawyers would be happy to take on this suit for us, but not for $5,000 over the course of two years,” said Holden.

Holden questioned whether or not other conditions would be attached to Bridgeport’s proposal for tuition fees.

“When they sent me the letter notifying us that they were planning on charging tuition, they also told me that we were forbidden to reduce the number of students who attend that school,” Holden said. “And the way it was written, frankly, I still don’t know if that means if fewer kids want to go there do we have to pay for as many kids as they’re trying to charge us now.
“Bottom line is, our position is that it’s not the deal we signed up for. They want to change the rules in the middle of the game, and we’re fighting that.”