West Mifflin to sue over Duquesne students' costs

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West Mifflin school officials say they are tired of subsidizing the cost of educating the 248 Duquesne students who attend West Mifflin middle and high schools on a tuition basis and plan to sue the state Department of Education for increased funding.

The board unanimously approved a motion last week to direct its solicitor to file suit to demand a per student tuition rate that covers the full cost of educating a student in West Mifflin, about $15,000.

For the 2014-15 school year, the state is paying West Mifflin $10,655 in tuition for each Duquesne student.

West Mifflin school directors have threatened for several years to take the state to court over what they claim is inadequate funding for the Duquesne students who were assigned to their district beginning in 2007 when Duquesne High School was closed.

School board President Phil Shar has given several presentations in recent years about the cost West Mifflin has incurred to educate the Duquesne students.

“The West Mifflin taxpayer needs relief,” Mr. Shar said at last week’s meeting.

In June, West Mifflin approved a $50 million budget that raised taxes 4.1 mills. The tax hike was necessary because reductions in a number of commercial reassessments, including the U.S. Steel Irvin Works and Century III Mall, have drastically lowered the district’s real estate tax revenues.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said he could not comment on the issue because of the pending litigation.

It’‍s unclear exactly when the suit will be filed and by whom because West Mifflin solicitor George Gobel told the board he plans to resign at the end of August.

When Duquesne High School closed, the state reassigned Duquesne students to West Mifflin or East Allegheny high schools, with the majority earmarked for West Mifflin.

In 2012, the seventh- and eighth-grade program in Duquesne was closed, and those students also were redirected to the same two districts, again with the bulk of them sent to West Mifflin.

As with the high school decision, West Mifflin school directors had no input into the state’s decision reassign the seventh- and eighth-grade students.

The West Mifflin board took the district’s $50 million budget and divided it by 3,200 students, the approximate number of students in its system, to calculate the $15,000 per pupil cost, but West Mifflin superintendent Daniel Castagna said state officials have said debt service should not be included in the calculation.

Removing the $6 million a year the district pays in debt service from the budget total places the per pupil cost at about $13,000 per student, still more than the tuition payment, he said.

In recent months, Mr. Castagna said the West Mifflin board met with Paul Long, the state receiver who is overseeing the Duquesne district, to discuss the issue, but no extra funding came from that.

Then the board met with state legislators to make a plea for increased funding for Duquesne students but got no promises.

The board also met with state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, who traveled to West Mifflin about two months ago. After that meeting, the tuition rate was increased $300 per student to $10,655, Mr. Castagna said.

Another argument that was made to Ms. Dumaresq is that none of Duquesne’s Title I funds, which are used for remediation, are forwarded to West Mifflin, Mr. Castagna said.

In the final state budget for 2014-15, West Mifflin’‍s Title I funds were increased $70,000. Mr. Castagna said he believes that increase was a result of the conversation with the secretary, but the board was not satisfied with those increases, maintaining that West Mifflin is still subsidizing each Duquesne student and because of the $21,213 difference in special education payments made to charter schools.

The tuition the state sets for Duquesne students who attend charter schools is $10,468 for regular education students and $31,856 for special education students.

There are 62 Duquesne students with special education designations attending West Mifflin schools, but the district gets no extra money for them, Mr. Castagna said.

“If we got that special education funding, we would have an additional $1.3 million in revenue,” Mr. Castagna said.

“It’s been a successful transition and a smooth transition [of the Duquesne students],” Mr. Castagna said.

“These kids are West Mifflin students. They get along. They are in our bands and our sports and our ROTC. They are immersed in our district. There is no question about that.

“The board feels that it’s a funding issue. If they funded it appropriately there would be no problem. The burden of educating the Duquesne students should not be on the West Mifflin taxpayers,” Mr. Castagna said.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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