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SCHOOL DISTRICT’S CLAIM FOR REIMBURSEMENT FROM CHARTER SCHOOLS FOR EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES REJECTED

Mark C. Hamilton, Esq., mhamilton@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5558

Saucon Valley School District v. Commonwealth Charter Academy, No. C-48-CV-2022-1284 (Northampton Com Pl. 2022).(The Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County dismisses a claim by a school district for reimbursement from a charter school of costs incurred in providing extra-curricular activities to charter school students). 

Background

Certain students who reside within the Saucon Valley School District (Saucon Valley) attend the Commonwealth Charter Academy (Academy) and, as required by the Charter School Law (CSL), were permitted to participate in extracurricular activities offered by Saucon Valley. Saucon Valley invoiced the Academy to recoup the costs incurred in providing extracurricular activities to the Academy’s students.  Instead of paying the entire invoice, the Academy attempted to pay only $500 for each student.

Saucon Valley refused to accept the reduced amount and filed a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County seeking money damages for violation of the CSL, 24 P.S. §§ 17-1701-A et seq.  The Academy filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted, asserting that the CSL does not provide an implied cause of action for civil damages.

The court granted the Academy’s motion to dismiss Saucon Valley’s suit, concluding that the CSL did not allow school districts to directly sue charter schools for claimed violations of the CSL.

Discussion

The CSL mandates that charter school students be permitted to participate in extracurricular activities conducted by their school district of residence if their charter school does not provide a similar program. The CSL does not provide for compensation of school districts for the costs of a charter school student’s participation in extracurricular activities.  However, a Basic Education Circular issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education states that school districts may bill charter schools for student participation in extracurricular activities on a per pupil cost basis.

To determine whether the CSL provides an implied cause of action to school districts, the trial court applied the standard set by the Statutory Construction Act, which permits courts to ascertain the intention of the General Assembly if the words of the statute are ambiguous.  Since the CSL does not expressly provide or forbid a cause of action of the type alleged by Saucon Valley, the trial court found the CSL to be ambiguous. 

The trial court then surveyed the relevant case law, noting that implied causes of action are seldom recognized by Pennsylvania courts. The court observed that the presence of “rights-creating language” in statutes such as the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law and the Medical Marijuana Act is a clear signal that such a remedy was contemplated by the General Assembly. Yet the trial court did not find an implied cause of action in the CSL.  The court reasoned that the intent behind the CSL is to benefit pupils through alternative means of education as shown by the transfer of benefits from educational institutions to pupils, teachers and parents.  The court pointed to a corresponding lack of any benefits flowing to the public school districts under the CSL. 

This analysis led the court to find Saucon Valley’s implied cause of action to be inconsistent with the legislative intent behind the CSL.  The court buttressed this argument by noting that it is only charter schools, rather than public schools, that have been given an express right of redress under the CSL when school districts fail to make the required funding payments. See 24 P.S. § 17-1725-A(a)(5).  The court also disregarded the Department of Education’s guidance as set forth in the Basic Education Circular because “it is violative of legislative intent.”   Accordingly, the Academy’s preliminary objection in the nature of demurrer was sustained and the Complaint was dismissed with prejudice.

Practical Advice

While the decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County is not binding precedent throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it provides charter schools with a authoritative basis to refuse to reimburse school districts for costs incurred for charter school students’ participation in extracurricular activities despite the contrary guidance of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

For more information, contact Mark Hamilton at (412) 594-5558 or click here for more information about Mark.

June 12, 2023

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