Last fall, in a matter of first impression, a state court ruled that a school district cannot sue a charter school for unpaid extracurricular fees. A few months later, the Pennsylvania Department of Education weighed in on how these fees are calculated and rejected a school district’s attempt to recoup funds that PDE had redirected.
Both of these decisions indicate that school districts are likely to have a difficult time collecting unpaid extracurricular fees from charter schools or charging a fee that fairly reflects the district’s added cost for the particular sport or activity.
Below, we look at the two cases and offer some guidance to school districts in this area of the law.
The Two Lawsuits
Saucon Valley School District v. Commonwealth Charter Academy, No. C-48-CV-2022-1284 (Pa. Ct. Common Pleas, Northampton Cnty. Oct. 6, 2022). Saucon Valley School District filed a claim under the Charter School Law to recover money from Commonwealth Charter Academy for the cost of students’ participation in SVSD’s extracurricular activities. SVSD said a 2019 PDE Basic Education Circular interpreted the CSL as allowing school districts to charge charter schools on a per-pupil basis.
The charter school objected, saying the CSL does not provide school districts with a cause of action to sue for civil damages.
In siding with the charter school, the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas said the CSL was enacted for the benefit of students, parents, and teachers but not school districts. The court explained that the CSL “contains no rights-creating language and does not contemplate any remedy in favor of school districts.” Additionally, the court disregarded the PDE’s interpretation of the CSL in the PDE circular because it is “violative of legislative intent.”
The court noted that the issue is one of first impression “with wide-reaching implications.”
Pocono Mountain School District v. Commonwealth Charter Academy Charter School, No. BBFM-10-2017-05 (PDE Dec. 1, 2022).
Pocono Mountain School District objected to PDE’s redirection of funds from its state payments under § 1725-A(a)(5) of the Charter School Law. PMSD said it was entitled to the money due to costs associated with charter school students participating in its extracurricular activities. Commonwealth Charter Academy Charter School had paid PMSD $500 per student. The amount at issue was about $12,000.
PMSD argues that its policy of calculating costs on a per-student basis related to the cost per activity reported on its Title IX report is consistent with PDE guidance.
The charter school countered that PDE Basic Education Circulars are not legally binding and that any participation fee should correspond to the per-pupil charter school funding rate related to student activities (Function 3200 expenditures) and not costs in a school district’s Title IX report.
PDE noted that PMSD spent $383 per student for Function 3200 student activities during the 2016-17 school year and $310 per student for Function 3200 student activities during the 2015-16 (the total PMSD spent on Function 3200 student activities divided by PMSD’s Average Daily Membership).
Because those amounts were part of PMSD’s payment to the charter school for students to attend the school, PDE said PMSD is entitled to reclaim $383 per student that participated in extracurricular activities during the 2016-17 school year and $310 per student that participated in extracurricular activities during the 2015-16 school year.
PDE rejected PMSD’s challenge as the charter school had offered $500 per student, which exceeded the amount of PMSD’s Function 3200 budgeted expenditures divided by Average Daily Membership.
Bottom Line for Schools
One thing that both decisions had in common is that they said PDE Basic Education Circulars are merely guidelines and are not legally binding. As a result, school officials should be aware that PDE Basic Education Circulars hold no legal weight.
School administrators with questions should contact their school’s solicitor or one of the education attorneys at KingSpry.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice.