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The parents of a learning-disabled boy bought a home in the Walt Disney Co.’s master-planned Florida community, Celebration, in hopes their son would thrive at what they were told was a cutting-edge public school. Instead, Paul and Connie Simon’s son, Nick, regressed, harmed by what his parents claim was a chaotic school environment nothing like the place promised by the Celebration Co. and the Osceola County School District in Central Florida. They say their daughter, Ana, also suffered, and they enrolled both in private school. The Simons sued the school district and the Disney subsidiary developing the town in 2001, but Osceola Circuit Judge Jeffords D. Miller dismissed the suit, saying the couple’s claims for fraudulent inducement and negligent misrepresentation were nothing more than “disguised claims of educational malpractice,” which Florida courts do not recognize as a cause of action. Now, the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach has ruled the suit may go forward and cautioned that developers cannot make blanket promises about the quality of schools when they’re making a sales pitch. Celebration, population 2,736 in 2000, is based on the principles of New Urbanism, billed early on as a Utopia of sorts for families. Company literature describes it as a place built on “a foundation of cornerstones: community, education, health, technology and a sense of place,” a place where neighbors will gather on front porches or at the town center within walking distance of most homes. Other marketing pamphlets described the Celebration School as a public/private partnership. Disney contributed $5 million to the school and gave the school district the land on which it sits. The district is part of the lawsuit because the Simons claim it was working together to market the school. “What Celebration did is put together this whole marketing scheme around the school, saying it was cutting-edge, a leader in the field of education,” said the Simons’ attorney, Brett Hartley of Drymonis Hartley & Boswell in Orlando. “Then they shepherded these parents through the school on daily tours and charged a premium to be closer to the school. That was the sell.” Celebration lawyer Robert W. Thielhelm Jr. of Baker & Hostetler in Orlando had no comment. Attorneys for the school board did not return calls seeking comment. Celebration spokeswoman Andrea Finger said the Simons don’t have a case and noted that the appeals court made no finding of wrongdoing. Writing for the majority, Judge William D. Palmer said the Simons asserted a legitimate claim and dismissed the idea that prospective buyers shouldn’t rely on marketing materials. “As an alternative basis for dismissal, the trial court also ruled that dismissal of counts III and IV was warranted because the defendants’ statements to Mr. and Mrs. Simon concerning the quality of education provided at the Celebration School were not actionable since they constituted simple ‘puffing;’ that is, statement of opinion [not fact] which are not actionable as being either fraud or misrepresentations,” Palmer said. “We disagree.” Judge Vincent G. Torpy agreed with Miller that the Simons are really suing for educational malpractice. “Simply put, it is not reasonable to believe that a particular curriculum by a new public school guarantees that the school will be successful in teaching one’s child,” Torpy said. “There are too many variables in the education process for this to be the case.”

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