State agrees to pay Penn Hills schools for Santorum

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The state Department of Education has agreed to pay the Penn Hills School District $55,000 to settle a dispute over whether the school district should have paid for cyber schooling for the children of U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

The settlement doesn't address whether Mr. Santorum is a resident of Penn Hills. And the Republican senator and the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School don't have to pay any of the money, said Brian McDonald, spokesman for the state Department of Education. The money will come from state coffers.

The Penn Hills school board is expected to vote Sept. 12 on whether to accept the settlement.

Mr. McDonald said the agreement will save taxpayers money by avoiding a lengthy legal dispute.

Penn Hills school board member Erin Vecchio, who questioned the senator's residency in fall 2004, said, "It should have been Rick who had to pay it back."

Ms. Vecchio, also chair of the Democratic Party in Penn Hills, said the fact that there has been no ruling on his residency "tells me nobody has the nerve to do that."

While emphasizing that the senator was not a formal party to the case, Robert Traynham, a spokesman for Mr. Santorum, said, "We are very pleased that the three parties -- the state, Penn Hills and the charter school -- were able to settle their differences.''

Asked to respond to Ms. Vecchio's claim that the senator should have been held personally liable for the tuition payments, Mr. Traynham said, "I'm not going to dignify the chair of the Democratic Party in Penn Hills by commenting on that.''

Mr. Santorum and his wife, Karen, own a house on Stephens Lane -- next door to Mrs. Santorum's parents -- as well as a larger home in Virginia.

At the time questions were raised, the house was occupied by his niece and her husband, but Mr. Santorum said sometimes a couple of his kids stayed there while he was at the in-laws. In May, some contended the house was empty.

Mr. Traynham said the family does live in the Penn Hills house when in the state and spent the month of August there during the Senate recess.

Ms. Vecchio, who lives nearby, said that isn't true. "We are always over in that area, and he is never there," she said.

The Santorums, who have six children, home schooled their children before they enrolled five of them in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School at Penn Hills' expense.

The cyber school, based in Midland, Beaver County, provides online education, enabling the children to attend school anywhere. Under state law, a school district must pay a fee for every resident who attends a charter school. At the time, it amounted to $7,551 a year for each pupil from Penn Hills.

Estimates vary as to how much this cost the district, but Mr. McDonald said that the state withheld $72,000 from the district for the cyber school.

After the enrollment was questioned, the Santorums withdrew their children from the school.

More than a year ago, Barry Kramer, chief hearing officer for the state Office of General Counsel, ruled against Penn Hills, saying it missed the deadline to challenge Santorum's residency.

Some of the Santorum children were enrolled at the cyber school in 2001-02; others began part way through the 2003-04 school year.

Mr. Kramer said, "Penn Hills' inexplicable failure to object within the statutorily mandated timeline, or even within a reasonable approximation of that timeline, nullifies its tardy objection."

He did not rule on the residency issue.

The school district, however, continued to press its case with the state Department of Education.

The district's solicitor could not be reached yesterday, but Mr. McDonald said the district successfully argued that the department had conflicting language about how to file an objection.

The department as soon as next week may streamline the process to avoid confusion.

The tuition and residency issue has dogged Mr. Santorum through his re-election campaign.

Mr. Santorum won his first election to the House of Representatives in 1990 in a campaign that relied in part on his assertions that his opponent did not live in the district he represented.

Given that history, Democrats have seized on the school issue, trying to similarly turn his Virginia residency against him.

After a speech Monday at the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg, Mr. Santorum was asked to defend his use of Penn Hills funds for the charter school.

He replied, "I defend it as I'm a taxpayer in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. That's where I pay my income tax, that's where I pay my real estate tax, that's where I pay wage taxes, state taxes, I pay taxes like any other state taxpayer. And most people who pay taxes to the school district, who claim that place as their only residence in Pennsylvania, which it is, usually have the right to be able to send their kids to school."

State law says, "A child shall be considered a resident of the school district in which his parents or the guardian of his person resides."

A 2000 court case involving the Cumberland Valley School District ruled a mother and children were residents of a district because "they stay there during the days and sleep there at night. Mail and phone calls are received there. Clothing, books and supplies are kept there as well."

Ms. Vecchio said that the Santorum children are registered as homeschoolers in the Penn Hills School District.

"At least we're not paying for it," she said.


Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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