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North Dakota students to pay tuition in Breck after abrupt end to board meeting

Breckenridge Interim Superintendent Warren Schmidt said Monday he didn't know some students the district listed to claim state aid for last school year were in fact North Dakota residents. And he added he didn't believe principals or teachers were aware of that either.

At its Monday meeting, the district's school board was supposed to discuss the out-of-state enrollment issue, which spurred a state inquiry after a parent complained about it to the Department of Education. But Schmidt asked the board to adjourn the meeting prematurely because he disagreed with a television reporter over whether she could place a microphone on the desk in front of him. After some hesitation and protests from an audience of a couple of dozen, the board complied.

Apparently, the district has a policy dating back to 1995 that says out-of-state students must pay tuition commensurate to per-pupil state aid, currently about $6,000 per student. Because the board didn't take action Monday, that policy will stand and will apply to what Schmidt said are six North Dakota students who started the school year in the district.

"Not a single parent from North Dakota has ever paid tuition to this district, including this year," said Schmidt, who's been with the district a year. "Why? I don't know."

This summer, a Breckenridge parent, Laura Heitke, contacted the Department of Education with names of students she believed go to school in the district but live in North Dakota. In response to a department inquiry, the district submitted earlier this month the names of nine students with North Dakota residence who attended the district all of last school year. Schmidt said he's submitting a revised list today.

The district would have generated Minnesota taxpayer dollars for these students.

At the beginning of the meeting, Heitke addressed the board urging members not to let students attend Breckenridge tuition-free on the heels of $500,000 in budget cuts this spring.

"I really expect to board to do the right thing for taxpayers," she said. "I think there are enough of them out there concerned about what's going on."

But when the board got to the issue, the last on the agenda, a reporter for WDAY-TV, Christina Vaughn, attempted to place a microphone in front of Schmidt. He insisted that she step back. She countered she was just doing her job at a public meeting, and a cameraman explained he would not get good-quality sound with the mike in the audience.

After Vaughn refused to step back, the board voted to adjourn the meeting. After the television crew left the room, Schmidt spoke to residents and fielded questions.

Schmidt explained the issue came to the district's attention only after Heitke brought it up at the board's August meeting: "We immediately after this meeting started examining the issue."

After consulting with an attorney, he would have recommended that the board start enforcing its tuition policy. When asked if the district would have to reimburse the state for past aid, he said, "If the State Department says, 'You've got to pay it all back,' then we'll pay it all back. It was never my intent to disobey the law."

Heitke said she did not believe nobody in the district knew that the students on the Department of Education list lived in North Dakota. And she pointed to a March e-mail exchange she had with Schmidt, in which she alerted him to the issue.

After the meeting, Schmidt said to protect student privacy, he couldn't comment on claims by parents that some of the students in questions are children of district teachers.

But, he told residence, there's an upside to the story.

"We must be a great school if we have a lot of students from North Dakota wanting to come here," Schmidt said. "Well, I shouldn't say a lot. We have some."