JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Despite Ponaganset High School starting classes 36 days ago, Isabella Miller hasn’t stepped foot inside a classroom.
Her family had to relocate earlier this year from the Foster-Glocester School District to Johnston, which meant Isabella technically became registered as a public school student in the new community.
But she has special needs, and her mother, Tracey Miller, and her doctor said it’s important for her health and education to continue to attend Ponaganset for her senior year, as she’s been at the high school for the past three years and change is tough for people with autism.
The transfer hasn’t happened, however, since the family has received weeks of conflicting information over how much it should cost for Isabella to get back in the classroom.
“She feels like she is comfortable there. They accept her they have known her for many years,” Miller said about her daughter’s experience at Ponaganset.
“The only reason why my daughter is not attending school is because of money and it shouldn’t be that way,” she added.
The confusion stems from how districts are supposed to pay for out-of-district transfers. In Rhode Island, the state’s funding formula dictates that the money is supposed to follow the student — meaning the sending district is responsible for most of the cost of the transfer.
But there isn’t great information publicly available for what this means for students with special needs, who typically have a higher-than-average per pupil cost. And there’s a discrepancy between what Johnston said it will pay and how much Ponaganset wants for the transfer.
The R.I. Department of Education, Ponaganset and Johnston school officials have declined to comment on Isabella’s situation, although her mother said they’re supposed to hold a hearing on the issue next week.
According to Miller, Johnston has offered to pay about $30,000 for Isabella’s transfer to Ponaganset. But the Foster-Glocester School District, which oversees the high school, is asking for $117,000.
“Children fall through the cracks, especially in special needs,” Miller said. “She’s already fallen. She has already gone through the cracks.”
Miller explained that the fight to get her daughter back into school has added stress to their family. She said being out of the classroom and away from her unified basketball team has already caused Isabella to struggle with severe depression and anxiety.
“It’s heartbreaking, to be honest. There are nights that I just cry,” Miller added. “I feel like I am not being the mother that I should be, even though I am fighting every possible way that I can for her.”