COSTA MESA — A 9-year-old girl with a learning disability whose special needs were not met by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District may bill the district for the cost of tuition at a private school, under a state ruling.
The girl, who is dyslexic and has suffered emotional problems, won an unusual judgment in January from a state hearing officer who found that officials at College Park Elementary School were unable to teach the third-grade student to read above a first-grade level.
The girl's mother, Cyndee Montgomery, contended in a complaint to the state that as a result of the school's inability to teach her daughter, the child developed emotional problems that included fits of crying during class.
She was also unable to make friends and complained of "blurred vision," Montgomery contended. The child's name is not being published to protect her privacy.
"She had emotional problems because she is a very intelligent kid who could not read," Montgomery said.
In January, F. Richard Ruderman of the State Special Education Hearing Office ordered the school district to pay the girl's $900-per-month tuition for the 1993-94 school year at the private Prentice Day School in Santa Ana.
Ruderman found that the district failed in its obligation to provide a "free and appropriate" education for the child and cited it for violations which "seriously infringed" upon the mother's ability to participate and make decisions about her daughter's academic placement.
But the district has so far refused to pay the girl's private school tuition and instead will appeal the decision to federal court, said Sharon Watt, a Ventura attorney who represents the school district.
"I am still quite shocked by this case," Watt said. "Without question, the school district does have a program that could (remedy) this child's disability. They have helped numerous other students. I don't see why they cannot help" this girl.
According to Orange County Department of Education statistics for the current school year, 249 children are attending private schools at public school expense. But only a tiny minority are there as a result of the kind of hearing that Montgomery pursued.
Of the 128 students currently enrolled at the Prentice Day School, 10 are being funded by public school districts.
In contrast, there are more than 36,200 students in the public schools' special education classrooms.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District Supt. Mac Bernd declined to comment on the situation, citing the student's right to confidentiality. Montgomery said she went public because she fears that the district will not pay her daughter's tuition.
Montgomery's daughter attended the Costa Mesa elementary school from the 1990-91 school year until June of 1993.
Three years ago, the girl's first-grade teacher wrote that "(The student) appears to feel lonely and frustrated at times during school," according to Ruderman's report. "In class, (she) appears to be unable to read by sight or decoding skills."
In the second half of her first-grade year, the child was placed in a special program, spending more than half her school day in the "mainstream" class at College Park and the rest with a special education teacher.
According to Ruderman's report, the results of an independent test of the girl's ability indicated that near the end of third grade, she read at a first-grade level. As a result, she was frustrated and cried often in class, Montgomery said.
The district's attorney disputes that description. "There is nobody who can verify that she has had any emotional problems in class," Watt said.
In addition, district officials believe that the girl showed good academic progress on standardized tests.
But believing that the district had failed, Montgomery began to search for a private school for her daughter.
Last summer, Montgomery and her daughter visited the National Dyslexic Research Foundation in Costa Mesa, where they learned that the 9-year-old is a "classic dyslexic" and were advised that she be placed at the nonprofit Prentice Day School or receive private tutoring. Montgomery enrolled her daughter in the special school.
The district was unable to persuade Montgomery to place her daughter back in public education system. Montgomery was unable to force the district to pay for the private school.
At that point, both parties agreed to a hearing before Ruderman.
In his decision, Ruderman said the district did not show that its program would address the child's special needs. In addition, he ruled, the district "committed a multitude of procedural violations that seriously infringed on Ms. Montgomery's ability to participate" in planning her daughter's special program.
Watt, however, said the district did everything it could to accommodate Montgomery and her daughter, holding special meetings during the summer when school was out of session. She said the district will file "a timely appeal" and the case may appear before a federal court judge in about a year.
"I have done many, many hearings and in few hearings have I had such exemplary a program as this program not approved by a hearing officer," Watt said.