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Tue., Oct. 6
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Each day Leslie A. Dias walks the two short blocks from her new home in Creek Wood Apartments to pick up her 8-year-old daughter at North Elementary School.

The city school is the only one that third-grader Allyson G. Ivey has ever known, because the family lived on nearby Francis Street for three years before moving into the new development off Mill Street a month ago. Starting Monday, however, that might have to change, as Mrs. Dias was told her daughter will have to ride a school bus more than 5 miles away to Brownville Elementary School.

Mrs. Dias, who said she has health problems and doesn’t own a car, insists she didn’t know that moving into her new apartment meant changing school districts. Now, in a dilemma that was bound to surface eventually since the apartment complex was built straddling the General Brown and Watertown City school district boundary, Mrs. Dias will be forced to pay $2,853 in annual tuition to Watertown or make her child switch schools.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” said Mrs. Dias, 29, whose husband, Spc. James D. Dias II, is deployed to Afghanistan for nine months. “Allyson goes to my mother’s and cries. She’s really stressed out.”

When she notified her daughter’s school about their address change Oct. 17, Mrs. Dias was stunned when a North Elementary School secretary informed her that she had moved into an apartment building outside the city school district.

She said it’s a difficult situation for her family, and she is appealing to city leaders to waive tuition so her daughter can stay in the city school. She worries about having to pick up Allyson in an emergency or if she is sick, and without transportation, she said, she will not be able to attend school events and teacher conferences.

The handful of students in the complex who attend General Brown typically arrive home on a school bus after 4:30 p.m., Mrs. Dias said, noting it would be a long day for an 8-year-old.

Mrs. Dias said that she wrote to Watertown Superintendent Terry N. Fralick, who told her she would have to pay tuition or Allyson would have to attend General Brown. A $407.65 monthly payment is due Monday.

The matter has been placed on the agenda for Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting. So far, board members have not discussed the issue.

It was apparent to both districts that Allyson’s situation was bound to happen when Creek Wood was proposed in 2008. The districts negotiated to keep the boundary intact before the apartment complex construction began, said Jack J. Boak Jr., Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services superintendent. The reason was state aid, he said, noting that north country schools lost $80 million in aid over a four-year period.

Saying he empathizes with the family, Mr. Boak said school districts cannot afford to lose any additional state aid, although he could not say how much money that entailed.

Mr. Fralick puts some of the blame on the apartment developers, Norstar Development USA, Buffalo, and on the city, which annexed the land. He said he believes the land issue should have been settled before construction began.

General Brown Superintendent Cammy J. Morrison could not be reached for comment.

The situation came up just one other time, when a tenant who lived on the General Brown side of the apartment complex wanted to send children to the city schools. That situation was resolved when Creek Wood’s property manager found an apartment in another building, Mr. Fralick said.

No other apartments at Creek Wood are available now. And Mrs. Dias is the first tenant who has requested that tuition be waived and her child remain in the city district.

School board President Cynthia H. Bufalini said district policy dictates that if you don’t live in the district, you have to pay tuition or move out.

“We have to be careful we don’t set precedents here,” she said, noting that residency issues with residents around the district come up occasioanlly.

In fact, Northland Estates, an apartment complex off Route 11 in the town of Watertown, is split up between the city and South Jefferson school districts, Mr. Fralick said. Some students attend city schools and some go to South Jeff, he said. A trailer park on West Main Street also is in the same situation, with some students going to the city school district and others to General Brown.

“Creek Wood is not unique,” he said.

But Mrs. Diassaid she believes her situation is unique.

Although she remembered she was told the property was split into the two school districts, she is confident she was never told her apartment was actually in General Brown.

“I am not going to send my daughter to General Brown,” she said.

Contacted by phone, a representative of the apartment complex said she made Mrs. Dias “fully aware” of the school district.

And both districts keep apartment address lists of which school district the units are in, Mr. Boak said.

“There must have been a mix-up or a misunderstanding,” he said.

Meanwhile, the conflict is taking a toll on Mrs. Dias.

She said money is tight and she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, which has affected her kidneys.

“I’m stressed out,” she said, adding the troubles have made her arthritis worse.

On a chilly day last week, Mrs. Dias put 3-year-old daughter Peyton in her stroller and walked slowly down the bumpy sidewalk along East Division Street to pick up Allyson. On the 20-minute way back, the third-grader was in a talkative mood, smiled a lot and chatted about her day in school.

“I had a good day,” she told her mother.

In recent days, Mrs. Dias has not talked to Allyson about the situation, hoping not to stress her out further.

Not knowing what to do, Mrs. Dias contacted Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham to see if he could help. He has intervened on her behalf, contacting Mr. Fralick, Mrs. Bufalini and Creek Wood representatives.

The mayor is hopeful that the school board will respond positively. Maybe the school board can extend the deadline until the family can find another apartment in another building there or at two other complexes it owns, Star Wood on nearby Starbuck Avenue and Summit Wood on outer Washington Street.

“I see all sides,” he said. “But it’s supposed to be about children.”

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