PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court has overturned a lower court's ruling that dismissed the Chariho Regional School District's lawsuit against the state Department of Education and other state agencies.
The Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court order on Thursday.
The district, which covers Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton, argues that it had an exclusive arrangement with the state to offer career and technical education in southern Rhode Island. Its lawsuit, filed in 2016, contended that the state breached the agreement by authorizing the programs elsewhere.
The Superior Court sided with the state, which had argued that the case should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. But the district appealed to Supreme Court, which on Thursday remanded the case back to the lower court.
The Chariho Career and Technical Center offers a wide variety of career and vocational programs, including agricultural sciences, construction and computer technology, criminal justice, engineering design, cosmetology and culinary arts, health, education and hospitality.
As school enrollments have declined in recent years, other districts in the area have started more of their own career programs to retain students in their home communities. Some of these courses duplicate the offerings at Chariho.
Chief Justice C.J. Suttell, writing for the court, noted that in 2010 the Chariho district and RIDE agreed that the Chariho Area Career and Technical Center site would be transferred back to the school district (in 1996, Chariho had given the parcel to the state).
Suttell noted that significantly, "the CTC transfer agreement also provided that, 'for so long as Chariho operates a career and technical center, RIDE warrants that it will not approve the establishment of any career and technical center in the towns of Charlestown, Hopkinton, Narragansett, New Shoreham, Richmond, South Kingstown, and Westerly.'"
In its suit, Chariho alleged that Kenneth Wagner, the former state education commissioner, breached the agreement by authorizing technical programs at Westerly and Narragansett. In so doing, the district alleged that Wagner "had unilaterally repudiated the CTC transfer agreement by stating that paragraph 1(d) was not enforceable and that the agreement had never been in effect."
Chariho school Superintendent Barry Ricci said, "I am most pleased by the decision of the Supreme Court. Chariho negotiated a transfer agreement for the Career and Technical Center in good faith with the expectation that the agreement would be honored by the Rhode Island Department of Education. When Chariho was informed that the department had no intention of honoring the agreement, we were left no choice but to litigate. Even though much time has passed, the decision by the Supreme Court is the right one."
The education department declined to comment.