Judge reinstates lawsuit between school districts

By: Andy Kozlowski, Cortney Casey | C&G Newspapers | Published September 26, 2012

A lawsuit between two local school districts over alleged “student poaching” will proceed, after Judge Peter Maceroni, who dismissed the case in July, reconsidered.

Warren Consolidated Schools filed suit against Hazel Park Schools in May 2011, claiming that HPS “poached” students by operating an educational facility within WCS boundaries. The claim seeks in excess of $1 million in damages.

Donald DeNault, the attorney representing WCS, said the judge dismissed the suit because he mistakenly believed the plaintiff had failed to respond to one of the defendant’s affidavits before a discovery deadline.

However, discovery had been ongoing, and responses from HPS to WCS’ filings also were still pending at the time Maceroni issued that opinion, said DeNault.

After DeNault filed a motion for reconsideration, Maceroni agreed, vacating the order for dismissal — in essence, reversing it — late last month. The parties’ next court appearance is set for Oct. 18.

Some procedures have taken a bit longer than they typically do in such cases due to an extended illness on the HPS side, DeNault noted, but both sides have continued to file materials throughout the case.

The dispute centers on a facility on 15 Mile, near Dequindre, in Sterling Heights, which is run by the International Network for Vocational Education Skills Training Inc. — better known as INVEST — under contract with HPS.

WCS alleges that it has lost more than $1 million in state aid because HPS is counting INVEST students among its ranks.

“In a nutshell, the law says that school districts have their … own boundaries, and they’re not supposed to put facilities in other school districts’ boundaries,” said DeNault.

If they do, they’re supposed to obtain permission from the home district to count the kids for funding purposes, he said, and “in this case, Hazel Park didn’t do that.”

WCS spokesman Robert Freehan previously said that HPS originally solicited students who met criteria that made them fair game for an alternate district. Such criteria include students who are pregnant, expelled from their home districts or enrolled in adult education, he said.

Freehan alleged that HPS began soliciting mainstream students over time, but HPS has maintained that the center indeed educates individuals who meet the exemption criteria.

In June 2011, Maceroni denied WCS’ request for an injunction, maintaining that WCS would not suffer “irreparable harm” from the facility’s continued operation, as any potential economic injury “can always be remedied by damages” later on, if warranted by a trial outcome.

Though the case has been ongoing for nearly a year and a half, DeNault said he was unconcerned about the time frame because WCS anticipates recouping the lost funding.

DeNault said the district will have to continuously recalculate its damages request as time passes and the facility accepts new waves of students.

“It was over $1 million whenever the last time it was that we looked at it — I believe they’ve added a class or two” since then, he said. “It could be double that by now.”

Thomas Barlow, the attorney representing HPS, declined comment pending the Oct. 18 status conference.