PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A top lawyer for the state ruled Wednesday that a high school senior with special needs can return to Ponaganset High School, pending the final outcome of an ongoing administrative battle over placement and cost.

R.I. Department of Education chief legal counsel Anthony Cotton made the decision one day after lawyers from Johnston and Foster-Glocester school districts argued over where Isabella Miller should attend school.

As Target 12 first reported, the dispute stems from residency issues and disagreement over tuition. Isabella had been a student at Ponaganset up until the past year when her family had to move out of district to Johnston.

Her mother, Tracey Miller, has since been fighting to keep her daughter at Ponaganset, arguing that changing schools would be detrimental to her education and health. Ponaganset officials have said they would accept Isabella, but only if $117,000 in tuition is paid because Johnston offers the same services. Johnston officials said they would pay $17,000 for the out-of-district transfer.

Former Ponagansett High School student Isabella Miller
Former Ponagansett High School student Isabella Miller and her mom, Tracey Miller

After hearing both sides on Tuesday, Cottone ruled Isabella can return to Ponaganset as a senior once Tracey files a due process complaint with the R.I. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The agency will make a final decision after examining whether Ponaganset denied the Isabella “free, appropriate, public education,” which is a right under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Cottone wrote in his decision that RIDE is prohibited from deciding such disputes under the federal law. But he exercised a so-called “stay put” provision, which is an interim protective order that mandates “she can be enrolled as a high school senior in the school district she had attended since pre-school,” according to the ruling.

Cottone also underscored that the disagreement over tuition costs could be argued at a later date, but currently it was “not relevant to the matter at hand.”

Tracey told Target 12 after the hearing she planned to file the complaint as quickly as possible. Once it’s filed, Isabella will return to school.

Sarah Guernelli ( is the consumer investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.