Silvia Rea is fighting with the Springs School District to enroll her 17-year-old cousin, who is living with her, in high school.
Matias Pulgar Alfaro would be a junior in East Hampton High School, but the district has denied his application to attend school there as a resident of Springs after he moved back to the United States from Chile.
Rea argues that Alfaro is a resident of Springs, because she is his legal guardian, while the school argues he cannot be considered a resident because she does not have court-ordered custody, according to Superintendent Michael Hartner.
Born and raised in East Hampton, Matias is a U.S. citizen. Five years ago, when he was 12 years old, his parents decided to move back to their native Chile and took him with them.
Matias wanted to move back to the United States earlier this year, so he moved in with Rea at her house on President Street, which is within the Springs School District. “I became his legal guardian when he came here," she said.
He has been living with Rea since early February, which is when she first tried to register him for high school with Springs, the feeder district. For a few weeks, she said, she got no answer on whether he would be allowed to attend the school. She eventually received a letter denying the application on March 4.
“Matias is not entitled to attend school as a resident of Springs,” Springs Superintendent Michael Hartner said in the letter. The reason being: "The law presumes students to be living with their parents and does not recognize the desire to attend school in a particular location as a basis for establishing residency in that location absent the parents.”
Rea has hired an attorney, Thomas W. Horn, Jr., who practices in Sag Harbor. He cited state education law, which reads, “A person over five and under 21 years of age who has not received a high school diploma is entitled to attend public school maintained in the district in which such person resides with the payment of tuition.”
However, according to Hartner, the New York State Law is a decisional law and it is based on Commissioner of Education decisions.
Hartner said based on his interpretation of the law, “A resident is living with his parents or living with someone who has formal court-ordered custody . . . The child has a school to attend in his district of residence which is not currently Springs but where his parents live.” He said, “We are bound by following commissioners rulings.”
In at least two previous commissioner decisions, it stated, "The presumption that a child resides with his or her parents or a legal guardians can be rebutted upon a determination that there has been a total and presumably permanant, transfer of custody and control to someone residing in the district. While it is not necessary to establish parental custody and control through a formal guardianship proceeding, it is necessary to demonstrate that a particular location is a child permanent residence and that the individual exercising control has full authority and responsibility with respect to the child’s support and custody.”
These two decisions, provided by Horn, deal with a child’s right to attend school in the district based on his or her status of residence.
While, Rea does not have formal court-ordered custody of Matias, but according to Rea and Horn, there is official signed paperwork stating she is the legal guardian and who assumes full financial and parental authority over the child.
Rea and Matias said that he plans to stay for the summer and following school year as a permanent resident.
After that initial denial, Rea and Horn sent in additional information, including citing past commissioner decisions and pointing out a translation problem when it came to application process.
The part of the application Matias' parents in Chile had to fill out was sent in English. They then proceeded to translate the legal document into Spanish and fill it out, but the translation was misleading and begot inaccurate answers, according to Horn.
They also informed Hartner and the Springs School Board that Matias "is a young man that wanted to return to his country."
After the added information, they were then again denied.
On March 9, Hartner and Springs School attorney, Neil Block, met with Rea and her attorney, Hartner said on Wednesday. "We discussed other options—but they just choose not to take these options.” He would not discuss what those options were.
According to Horn, "They advised us to get a judge to order them to do it or go to formal proceedings to transfer custody."
“We do not want to create a situation where we are inviting non-residents to attend Springs," Hartner said.
Horn and Rea said they will appeal to the Commissioner of Education if Alfaro is not allowed access to education through the district. But, Horn said they are limited because the district didn't offer a formal hearing, as other districts do.
Horn wants the district to put Matias in school and let the education commission decide afterwards.
"We were hoping to avoid an appeal to the commissioner because of the time issue for the student," Horn said.
Meanwhile, Matias spends the day without much to do. "During the day I am kind of bored because I’m by myself," he said. He plays hockey in a local sports league at Sportime in Amagansett, plays soccer, and just received his driving permit.
Rea said he tries to talk to students in his grade about what they are reading or doing in school so he doesn’t get too far behind. Rea also has a daughter who attends Springs, where she is an active parent.