WAYNESBURG – Jefferson-Morgan School District must pay nearly $25,000 in tuition to Trinity Area after twin girls who resided in the Greene County district decided to take a vocational-agriculture program offered by the high school in Washington County.
A panel of three arbitrators ruled Tuesday that even though the two ninth-graders had transferred before the 2017-18 school year to take only two vo-ag courses at Trinity, the district admitted them as full-time students and they attended other general studies classes the rest of the day, meaning Jefferson-Morgan must pay the full tuition for both.
Jefferson-Morgan school officials had accused Trinity of poaching the two students to play basketball and using the vo-ag program as the reason. The family moved into the Trinity Area School District the following year.
In a response filed Thursday in Greene County Court, Jefferson-Morgan accuses Trinity of recruiting students for its athletic programs through academic offerings.
J-M Superintendent Joseph Orr argued the school district never should have had to pay the full tuition for that one year because the two students indicated their only reason to go to Trinity was to take the vo-ag classes, and that his school district was able to meet the rest of their educational needs.
Orr testified during the hearing that the family never came directly to them to ask about what other vo-ag options they had possibly closer to the school district. Although Jefferson-Morgan’s girls’ basketball coach had heard the students were thinking about transferring, it wasn’t until after Trinity’s school board voted to approve accepting them as full-time students did Orr and other school officials learn of the transfer.
He said Trinity should have directed the students and their parents to meet with officials at their home school district first, so they could discuss the options. Orr said school officials typically meet with other school districts to discuss plans over whether they should be part-time or full-time students, or even attend a different school. He thought the two students in this case should have been enrolled in a part-time schedule and travel between the two school districts.
“We try to engage them,” Orr said. “Just because we don’t have (a vo-ag program) doesn’t mean we wouldn’t try very hard to find it (elsewhere).”
Ernie DeHaas, the attorney who represented Jefferson-Morgan in the case, argued that if parents wish to send their children to another school district for any other reason, then that family is responsible for the full tuition. He added that no final agreement was ever reached between the two school districts on payment.
“This is supposed to work in a much different way than it did,” DeHaas said.
Trinity Area School District officials are accusing counterparts in Jefferson-Morgan of underpaying for students it sent to Trinity's vocational-agricultural program last year.
But Trinity Assistant Superintendent Donald Snoke testified it’s his district’s policy to enroll vo-ag and other technical school participants as full-time students. He testified that the high school’s “scatter schedule” does not organize the vo-ag classes together, making it impossible for students to attend two different schools. Other districts where students attend vo-ag classes, including Canon-McMillan, Chartiers-Houston, Fort Cherry, McGuffey and Washington, pay full-time tuition, he said.
But Jefferson-Morgan had refused to pay the full $24,662 invoice for the two students, instead writing two checks that totaled $6,165 that was prorated for just the vo-ag classes. Trinity sued Jefferson-Morgan in Greene County Court in August 2018 for lack of the full payment.
“Obviously, we disagree with Jefferson-Morgan’s logic and argument,” said Susan Roberts, the attorney representing Trinity.
The arbitration panel, which included attorneys Joseph Zupancic, John Headley and Lukas Gatten, agreed with the plaintiff, voting unanimously that Jefferson-Morgan must pay the remaining $18,469 to Trinity following a two-hour hearing at the Greene County Courthouse.
Gatten said the panel ruled that the full tuition should be paid because Pennsylvania statutes do not provide for partial payments, similar to how a school district must pay the full price if a student decides to attend a cyberschool. He added that the athletic situation played no part in their decision.
“We believe the statute lends itself to the case, and it should be followed,” Gatten said.
DeHaas said after the hearing the district plans to review its legal options and could appeal the decision to Common Pleas Court in Greene County. Roberts declined to comment after the hearing.