Town doesn't have to pay for girl's private schooling

CONCORD – The Brookline School District won’t be required to reimburse a couple for the expense of sending their daughter to private school because the town was offering an appropriate education for the girl’s needs, a judge has ruled.

The 35-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph LaPlante was released recently and marks another milestone in the long-running dispute over the elementary school education of a girl who is now of high school age.

LaPlante’s decision could be appealed to the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston, which had dismissed earlier claims by the couple based on legal grounds without considering the facts behind the case.

Lawyers for both sides have declined to discuss the lawsuit previously for reasons including confidentiality.

Catherine Burke and Mikael Rolfharme filed the lawsuit in August 2006, charging Brookline School District officials had blocked their efforts to get necessary services for their daughter. The couple alleged “an established practice of disregarding state and federal regulations” to duck the expense of special education.

The couple had adopted three children from Russia in 1998 and alternated between home schooling and Brookline public schools for several years, the court ruling states. One of their daughters had a team of psychologists and specialists, who developed an Individual Education Plan along with her teachers and parents.

The girl was further evaluated in the fourth grade in response to her parents’ concerns and found to be learning disabled in math and suffering from an emotional disorder.

The girl was placed at Mont Blanc Academy, a private school in Hooksett, for fifth grade, but her parents withdrew her after an argument with administrators.

The school district proposed to return the girl to public school, but her parents asked that she go instead to the Regional Services and Education Center in Amherst. They also filed a claim with the state Department of Education, arguing Brookline had failed to provide their daughter a “free and adequate public education,” as the law requires, and sought compensation for the years they had home schooled her.

The RSEC declined to accept the girl as a student because it doesn’t generally take students with emotional disabilities, the court’s order states. The Brookline School District agreed to pay for further evaluation of the couple’s daughter, but a lengthy and complicated dispute ensued over the scope of the evaluation and how best to handle her education in the interim.

Her parents eventually enrolled their daughter at the Dr. Franklin Perkins School in Lancaster, Mass., and sought reimbursement from the school district for it.

In ruling against the couple, LaPlante found that Brookline schools had offered their daughter an appropriate education and that their “unilateral placement” at a private school “was not appropriate.”

LaPlante upheld the state Department of Education’s approval of the district’s IEP for their daughter and denial of tuition reimbursement.