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SouthField balks at Weymouth bill for educating students

Every weekday morning, three school vans roll into the SouthField neighborhood and drive down freshly paved, tree sapling-lined streets to pick up schoolchildren who live there.

Some students wait at the bus stop by the sparkling new apartment complex on Parkview Drive. Others get picked up farther down the road, near newly built homes on Thistle Lane. They are among the youngest residents of SouthField, the new community-in-the-making growing on a former naval base straddling Weymouth, Abington, and Rockland. Since SouthField has no school system of its own, the students attend school in Weymouth.

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And now, only a few weeks into the school year, SouthField’s inaugural class of school-aged children has become a hot topic of debate as officials haggle over the cost of educating them.

South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., the agency that acts as the municipality of SouthField, has suggested paying the town of Weymouth $6,900 for every SouthField student enrolled in the Weymouth public schools. Weymouth officials, however, want about $11,500 per pupil from SouthField taxpayers. South Shore Tri-Town arrived at its $6,900 figure by taking the Weymouth per pupil allocation of $9,574, and subtracting from it transportation and special education expenses and Chapter 70 funding.

How much Tri-Town will pay remains to be seen. “Right now we’re waiting for the schools to get back to us,” said Kevin R. Donovan, chief executive officer of the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp.

Donovan said Weymouth’s proposed per-pupil price tag is too high because the figure comes from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which calculates it by factoring in all sources of school funding, including state aid, federal grants, and private gifts — not just what Weymouth residents contribute. SouthField residents should not have to pay a larger share than Weymouth taxpayers, he said.

“We can’t pay the full per-pupil cost and they get the state aid,” he said. “In my view, that’s double dipping.”

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(SouthField property owners pay taxes to Tri-Town. SouthField’s residential tax rate for fiscal 2012 is $12.89 per thousand of assessed value; Weymouth’s is $12.14.)

There are 20 students from Southfield attending the Weymouth public schools. Six attend Thomas W. Hamilton Primary School; three attend Maria Weston Chapman Middle School; three attend Abigail Adams Middle School; and seven attend Weymouth High. There is one out-of-district placement. Tri-Town arranged for students’ transportation, and hired North River Collaborative to provide vans to and from their respective schools.

Although the dispute is over relatively little money — a difference of about $92,000 for the 20 pupils — how it is resolved has significant implications, as many more families with children are expected to move into SouthField in the near future.

Donovan said it’s “very difficult to project” how many school-aged children will move to SouthField in the next decade or so. There are 226 apartments and 35 homes and town houses now at SouthField. The population is 450 people “and climbing,” he said.

At full build-out, SouthField could have up to 2,855 homes. The reuse plan calls for land to be set aside for possible construction of a school building in the middle of the property, by the former base gymnasium, but there is no requirement for a school, he said.

Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim said Weymouth schools are committed to educating students of SouthField.

Weymouth school officials are calling for Tri-Town to hire an outside vendor to conduct a demographic study to predict how many school-age children will live at SouthField over the next 20 years. They hope to have that study in hand by the end of the year, so they can have an idea of how many students may be coming into the system in the near future, so proper accommodations can be made.

In early September, Weymouth Mayor Susan M. Kay sent a letter to Donovan requesting enrollment projections and outlining the Weymouth School Committee’s expectations for reimbursement from Tri-Town. Kay said she was “somewhat stunned” when she received Donovan’s response with a lower per-pupil amount. In his letter, dated Oct. 1, Donovan suggested Tri-Town isn’t necessarily required by law to pay anything. “There is no provision for requiring the SSTTDC to pay for the children,” he wrote.

The Weymouth School Committee is seeking legal advice. Kay plans to discuss the matter with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department on Revenue, and said she hopes they can “come up with a solution, because this has not been done before. . . . This is all very new to all of us. It’s very complex.”

A state Education Department spokesman, J.C. Considine said agency staff met with Weymouth officials last week to discuss the issue but it is not involved directly in the negotiation.

“We had discussed with Weymouth officials ways to measure how much it costs to pay for education,” Considine said in an e-mail. “We’ll also talk to the Department of Revenue to see if they have data available on how much a municipality should pay.”

Kay said the Weymouth public schools will need to keep track of all costs associated with SouthField students and send invoices to Tri-Town. Weymouth officials expect to be reimbursed for special education services to SouthField students, and they sent Donovan a cost breakdown of what they pay for contracted special ed services (reading specialists cost $85 to $120 per hour; behavior therapists cost $45.50 to $83 per hour; psychologists charge more than $100 per hour). They’ve asked Tri-Town to finance two modular classrooms and pay $225,000 to Weymouth schools over the next three years to cover the additional administrative costs of taking on SouthField students.

Kay expects more meetings and discussions with Tri-Town to reach a final agreement. Donovan said he is confident that they can negotiate a fair deal, and agree on a figure that is fair to SouthField taxpayers.

“I think we can come to an agreement,” said Donovan. “We recognize our obligations to pay justifiable costs.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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