MIDDLETOWN — The divorced, single mother of three children who were forced out of their home doesn’t know how she will be able to afford a $39,000 public school tuition bill she was left holding after the family moved to neighboring town.

New Jersey 101.5 reported Wednesday that the state education commissioner found the mother responsible for paying Middletown after the family moved to Keansburg but the three children continued to attend Middletown schools last year.

“I’m struggling. What am I supposed to do? They should understand that I am fighting for my children. It’s just sad,” Toni Ann Prestino said Thursday in an interview.

“I don’t have $39,000. I’m working to make my rent and get food on table.”

The amount has raised questions about the fairness of charging tuition rates for a public school system that is funded by property taxes, not individual tuition bills. The tuition amount calculated for Prestino's three children is 4.5 times more that the average Middletown property tax bill, just a portion of which goes to fund the schools.

The family lived in Middletown until they were evicted in a foreclosure. Prestino found a place to rent in neighboring Keansburg but decided to keep her children enrolled in Middletown to provide stability and make sure that her son, a high school honors student taking Advance Placement classes, would continue with the same challenging programs that are not available at Keansburg’s high school.

DON'T MISS OUT

Know the next big news story in New Jersey. Follow us on Facebook.

“I was honest. I told them (the district). I wasn’t trying to do anything sneaky,” Prestino said. “As a parent and children going through a tough time, I didn’t want any more change for my children. I didn’t want to pull them from their schools. I didn’t want my son to lose all that.”

But state law requires that children attend the districts where they live. Students can attend schools in another district if they pay tuition.

There are some exceptions. For example, if a family becomes homeless and has to temporarily live outside the district. But an administrative law judge who heard Prestino’s appeal said that did not apply in this case.

Middletown filed a counterclaim against Prestino, seeking reimbursement for the 2016-17 school year in the amounts of $11,806 for her child who attended kindergarten, $13,646 for her child in the fifth grade and $13,727 for her son's ninth grade year at Middletown North.

Keeping out students who do not live in town is a problem for some districts, especially districts that are considered to have better performing schools than those in neighboring municipalities. Some districts pay investigators in order to prove student residency.

Earlier this year a family in Somerset County’s Franklin Township was hit with a $35,462 tuition bill after their three children enrolled in South Brunswick schools.

A South Bound Brook family this year was also made responsible for paying a $38,000 tuition bill from Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District.

Middletown schools Business Administrator Amy Gallagher declined to explain how the district would pursue collection from Prestino, but said the district is “sympathetic to the personal hardships of families and we certainly feel for the family involved in this decision.”

“We are required by law to ensure that students attending our schools legally reside in our town,” Gallagher said in response to written questions by New Jersey 101.5. “Local property taxes predominantly finance our fine schools and we are responsible to the Middletown Township taxpayers for using their funds to educate Middletown Township students.

“The family has now enrolled in a new school district and we will assist in making the transition as seamless as possible.”

Gallagher would not say how many other students the district has kicked out or how many other families have been billed for out-of-district residency.

Prestino said Middletown officials offered to allow her son to continue attending Middletown North but she says she wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition.

She says school officials in Keansburg “have been more than nice; they are doing everything they can to help my son.”

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

Also on New Jersey 101.5: