In a recent decision, the federal district court for New Jersey found that a charter school was responsible for paying tuition for a private special education placement during a legal challenge because the public school district was not given an opportunity to object to the placement.

In Hatikvah International Academy Charter School v. East Brunswick Township Board of Education, a charter school and a school district were involved in a special education matter in which the parents of a student challenged the individualized education program (IEP) that the charter school developed for the student. The parents placed the student at a private school and sought reimbursement for the $70,000 cost.

The charter school agreed to reimburse the parents and to keep the student at the private school on an ongoing basis. The school district, which was not a party to that agreement, then challenged the placement of the student, saying that it was not responsible to pay for it. The parents, in turn, filed another action so that the student could remain at the private school while the legal matter was ongoing (a concept called “stay put”).

The question at the heart of this matter was who should bear the cost of the placement during this “stay put” period—the district or the charter school?

By way of background, under N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-11(b), the fiscal responsibility for an eligible charter school student with disabilities who requires a private day or residential school placement remains with the district of residence. However, the same statute also requires that the charter school notify the student’s resident district when a student’s IEP results in a private placement within 15 days of signing the IEP. The district then has 30 days to challenge the placement and has the right to offer the student an appropriate placement within the district.

In a February decision, an administrative law judge found that the district filed its objection on time and the charter school was responsible for payment of the private placement as well as for transportation costs during stay put. On appeal, the district court agreed in its May 12, 2020 decision that the charter school should bear the tuition cost, reasoning, among other things, that to find otherwise would render the district’s right to object “illusory.” However, the court found that the school district was responsible for transportation costs. The court reasoned that New Jersey law would require the district to fund transportation regardless of whether the student remained at the charter school or attended a different placement under an IEP.

School board members, charter school trustees, and school administrators are encouraged to discuss this case as well as special education issues related to charter school students with their board or school attorney. For more information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at 609-278-5254.