In a recent decision, Mine Hill Board of Education v. Dover Board of Education,  the Appellate Division of the State Superior Court upheld a 2013 commissioner of education determination that the district of residence, rather than the district of choice, is responsible for the out-of-district placement costs of a disabled student.  In the case, the parents were residents of Dover school district.  At the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, their child. M.G., was accepted as a student in the Mine Hill school district under the state’s Interdistrict School Choice program.

When the student became eligible for special education and related services during the 2010-2011 school year, Mine Hill developed an IEP, which was rejected by the parents, who thereafter filed a due process petition. Dover, the district of residence, intervened in the case, but the administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled in May 2011 that Dover was not the party responsible for any out-of-district private or residential placement. The judge concluded that students accepted into a choice school were to be treated for fiscal purposes as residents of the choice district since the choice school received state educational aid for the choice students. Mine Hill and M.G.’s parents agreed upon an educational plan.

In the 2011 decision, the ALJ determined that Mine Hill was responsible for the costs of M.G.’s placement, finding that the State Board of Education exceeded its authority in promulgating a regulation that transferred M.G’s placement costs to Dover, the district of residence, because the regulation conflicted with the applicable statute. Following the ALJ’s initial decision, the parties settled the matter, agreeing that Mine Hill was responsible for the bulk of M.G.’s out-of-district placement.

In 2012, the parties entered into a second agreement, reserving Mine Hill’s right to seek a declaratory judgment from the education commissioner. When Mine Hill filed a petition, a different ALJ determined that, despite the terms of the settlement agreement, Mine Hill was precluded from seeking a declaratory judgment by the initial decision. In 2013, the commissioner of education, in an unusual ruling, reversed both initial decisions and determined that pursuant to an amendment to the “Choice Act,” Dover, as the district-of-residence, maintained responsibility for any choice student enrolled in a residential school, except that a choice district was required to contribute any state aid received for any such students and the sending-district is required to pay any remaining balance.

The Appellate Division ultimately determined that the commissioner possesses the authority and obligation to determine the district that should bear the cost of providing a free appropriate education  for disabled students. Accordingly, the Appellate Division upheld the commissioner’s decision, finding that Dover, as the district-of-residence, maintained ultimate responsibility for the needs of the student.

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