State: Norwich Free Academy must provide education for expelled students

Norwich — Former Superintendent Abby Dolliver got a last-minute retirement gift that arrived at the school office about a month after her June 30 departure.

In a July 29 letter to Norwich Free Academy, the State Department of Education gave its position that NFA must provide the state-mandated alternative education to students expelled for long periods. For years, NFA had referred expelled students to their home school districts to provide the costly virtual learning or tutoring.

Dolliver said she repeatedly had asked state education officials for a decision on the issue, especially as the numbers of expelled students rose in recent years.

“The number seemed to increase a lot over the last couple of years,” she said, “and they were disenrolled and put on our rolls for the period.”

Dolliver alerted her successor, new Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow, of the issue during her transition and said the state was looking into the matter.

Stringfellow told the Board of Education on Sept. 10 that even though the state position came out July 29, about 15 Norwich students expelled from NFA were referred to Norwich at the start of the new school year. She said she informed NFA that based on the state letter, Norwich would close its virtual learning center to high school students Sept. 13.

NFA is disputing the state's position, but NFA spokesman Geoff Serra said NFA will accommodate expelled students from all eight partner districts sending students to NFA while awaiting a final decision.

By Nov. 1, NFA will add a program for expelled students to its Night Programs at the Sachem Campus, headed by Director of Night Programs Clarence Cooper. Until that program is up and running, NFA will arrange for tutoring services for expelled students, Serra said.

Typically, about 25 students per year are expelled for periods ranging from 11 to 180 days, he said.

“While the particulars of the State Department’s ruling are worked out legally and contractually, NFA will continue to do what it does best — provide educational services to the region’s youth,” Serra said in an email.

Jamie Bender, director of student services for the Norwich school district, said it’s difficult to break down exact costs of alternative education to expelled Norwich NFA students. Norwich paid $400 per student in a licensing fee for the program Virtual Learning, and in spring started piloting a new program, Edgenuity, costing $600 per seat — which could save money by allowing multiple students to enrolled part-time in one day, she said.

Licensing fees alone for the past three years totaled $46,910, including $9,600 for 24 Norwich school students not from NFA.

In addition, a program teacher is paid $35.18 per hour for an average of six hours a day, and a half-time school social worker was assigned to the center. Bender said the virtual learning center still will be needed for Norwich Public Schools students, but she expects costs to be much lower without NFA students.

And, Stringfellow told the Board of Education, Norwich still had to pay the full tuition to NFA for the expelled student, without credit for the expelled time.

State Department of Education data showed NFA had expelled 17 students in 2013-14, and the total jumped to 41 the following year, before leveling off to 22, 27 and 28 in each of the next three years.

State data for the 2018-19 school year was not available. Bender said her unofficial total showed more than 60 Norwich NFA students were expelled last school year, but not all attended the city's virtual learning center. The high number prompted Norwich school officials to renew its request to the State Department of Education for a decision on whether NFA should provide the alternative education program.

In the July 29 letter, State Department of Education attorney Matthew Venhorst informed NFA Head of School David Klein that because NFA is an endowed academy, the state law governing the requirement to provide alternative education “clearly is applicable to NFA.”

NFA disputed the state’s position in an eight-page response to Venhorst sent Sept. 6 by NFA’s attorney Kyle McClain. McClain repeatedly cited language in state laws that refer to local or regional boards of education being responsible for providing free education to students residing in the districts, including special education and alternative education, as required for expelled students.

“It is NFA’s position that when a student has been appropriately excluded from the traditional educational settings offered by NFA pursuant to (state statute), NFA does not then become responsible for continuing the education of such student outside of NFA’s regular school settings,” McClain wrote.

Peter Yazbak, spokesman for the State Department of Education, said Thursday that the department stands by attorney Venhorst's position and is working on its response to NFA. The state took the position that based on inerpretation of the state statute, the receiving district, NFA, has the edcuational responsibility for an expelled student, not the sending district, Yazbak said.

Yazbak said if a student is expelled at one of the state’s regional technical high schools, which also accept students from school districts throughout a region, the tech school system, and not the district where the student lives, provides the alternative education program.

c.bessette@theday.com

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