PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Local and state education officials held a hearing Tuesday to debate the future of Isabella Miller, a high school student with special needs who hasn’t been in the classroom all year.

The R.I. Department of Education held the hearing to try and resolve a dispute between the Foster-Glocester and Johnston school districts over where Isabella should attend school.

Isabella, who’s in her senior year, had been a student at Ponaganset High School up until the past school year when her family had to move out of district to Johnston.

Her mother, Tracey Miller, told Target 12 that she has since been fighting to keep her daughter at Ponaganset because changing schools would be detrimental to her education and health.

“I don’t think it is fair, not even for an average child without special needs, for her senior year to be trying to get around a new school, trying to make new friends that will accept her, trying to keep up with academics,” Tracey said during her testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.

Tracey also submitted a note from Isabella’s doctor’s office to back up the argument, which recommended in part that Isabella “would benefit socially, emotionally and academically by remaining in a familiar school system.”

Gregory Piccirilli, an attorney representing Foster-Glocester schools, argued that both districts have similar programs that would support Isabella. He pointed to a life-skills program to support his argument.

“I get that every kid that transferred in their junior year — disabled or not — would love to stay,” he argued during the hearing that Target 12 attended.

“But that is not the law,” he added.

Tracey Miller (right) and her daughter, Isabella.
Tracey Miller (right) and her daughter, Isabella.

William Conley, who represented Johnston schools, shot back at argument. He said the district was willing to educate Isabella, but they believe it would be in her best interest to graduate from Ponaganset since she’d became acclimated to that school.

“Johnston would welcome Isabella with open arms,” he said, adding the district has great special-needs programs.

But he argued Isaballa’s access to “what she needs will happen in Ponaganset.”

An underlying and influential factor in the dispute is an issue of the financial cost of transferring students from one district to another. In Rhode Island, the money follows the student when there is an out-of-district transfer, meaning the sending district is responsible for paying the per-pupil costs. For Isabella, however, the districts didn’t seem to agree on what her education would cost.

At the hearing, Foster-Glocester officials said tuition for a special-needs student costs $117,000 at Ponaganset High School. The Johnston school district estimated it would cost $17,000, representing a funding gap of $100,000.

“I just hope that you all take into consideration her and what’s best for her,” Tracey said during her closing arguments. “Not the school, not the money, not the politics.”

After the district attorneys concluded their arguments, RIDE chief legal counsel Anthony Cottone said he would issue a temporary ruling within a day to decide where Isabella would attend school until a final determination could be made in the future.

Isabella and Tracey told Target 12 they are hopeful that decision will be Ponaganset.

“We are praying they make the right decision,” Tracey said.