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Breckenridge interim superintendent addresses tuition flap

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. - Breckenridge Interim Superintendent Warren Schmidt said Monday he didn't know some students the district listed to claim state aid last school year were North Dakota residents.

And he added he didn't believe principals or teachers were aware of that, either.

On Monday, the district's School Board was scheduled 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.

The district has a policy dating back to 1995 that states out-of-state students must pay tuition commensurate to per-pupil state aid, currently about $6,000 per student. Because the board didn't act 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 for one year. "Why? I don't know."

This summer, Breckenridge parent Laura Heitke contacted the state Department of Education with the 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 residences who attended the district all of last school year.

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

At the beginning of Monday's meeting, Heitke urged the School Board not to let students attend Breckenridge tuition-free on the heels of $500,000 in budget cuts this spring.

"I really expect the 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, Christina Vaughn, a reporter for Fargo television station WDAY, tried 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 mic in the audience.

After Vaughn refused to step back, the board voted to adjourn. 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."

Schmidt said if the state agency says the district has to pay back the student aid, "then we'll pay it all back. It was never my intent to disobey the law."