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Decision No. 17,088

Appeal of the BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE EDGEMONT UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT from action of the Board of Education of the Greenburgh Central School District regarding payment of taxes.

Decision No. 17,088

(May 23, 2017)

Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, attorneys for petitioner, Jeffrey A. Kehl, Esq., of counsel

Keane & Beane, P.C., attorneys for respondent, Judson K. Siebert, Esq., of counsel

ELIA, Commissioner.--Petitioner, the Board of Education of the Edgemont Union Free School District ("petitioner"), appeals the determination by the Board of Education of the Greenburgh Central School District ("respondent") to reject petitioner's request to pay over all school taxes levied and received by respondent attributable to the 2015-2016 school year with respect to certain properties, described below.  The appeal must be dismissed.

On December 30, 2015, petitioner wrote to the attorneys for respondent, requesting payment of the taxes levied and collected for the 2015-2016 school year for certain properties in the Town of Greenburgh.  Certain border properties are located in the Town of Greenburgh that are intersected by the boundary line between the Edgemont and Greenburgh school districts.  Of these, there are "designated border properties" where the owners previously designated, pursuant to Education Law §3203(1), that the children residing on these properties shall attend school within petitioner's school district. 

Of these designated border properties, there are seven properties identified by petitioner as "contested border properties" where a child is no longer attending petitioner's schools and no new designation has been made.[1]  Respondent rejected petitioner's request to remit the amount of school taxes levied and collected on these properties by letter dated January 6, 2016.  This appeal ensued.

Petitioner alleges that respondent must remit the taxes levied and collected on the contested border properties.  Petitioner argues that, pursuant to Education Law §3203 subsections (1) and (3), respondent remains responsible for the remittance of school taxes on the contested border properties until a new designation is made, despite the fact that no children are attending school in either district.

Respondent alleges that it has complied with State law with respect to its refusal to remit the amount of school taxes at issue.  Respondent alleges that, even though it had previously remitted taxes to petitioner in accordance with a designation pursuant to Education Law §3203(1), Education Law §3203(2) implicitly permits respondent to terminate the remittance of those taxes once "[n]o children reside within the Contested Border Properties who are receiving instructional services" from the designated school district.  Respondent alleges that the plain language of §3203(2) limits remittance and recovery of collected taxes to districts that provide instructional services to children living on border properties, specifically the portions which describe the district "in which such children are received and instructed" and the district which is "designated and furnishing instructional service" to children.

The facts are largely not in dispute by the parties.  The primary issue on appeal is the parties' respective interpretations of Education Law §3203. 

Education Law §3203, entitled "Selection of school for attendance of children when district line intersects a dwelling," provides:

1. The owner of taxable property that is so located that the boundary line between two school districts intersects (a) the dwelling on said property or (b), in the case of an owner-occupied single family dwelling unit, the property on which the dwelling unit is located may designate the school in either of such districts to which the children lawfully residing in said dwelling on said property shall attend by filing with the district clerk of each of such districts a notice of such designation on or before August first in any year and thereafter or, in the case of a single family unit, when such dwelling unit is built or when its owner-occupant's first child commences attending school from such residence and thereafter whenever the ownership of such taxable property changes hands in an arm’s length transaction or, likewise, the first child of its new owner-occupant first commences attending school from such residence and, until a subsequent designation shall be made and filed, such children shall be deemed to be resident children of the district designated and shall be entitled to the school privileges of such district as resident pupils without the payment of tuition.

2. School taxes on such property shall continue to be levied and collected without reference to the aforesaid designation, but the school authorities of the district that levies and collects a tax upon such property and does not furnish instructional service to the children residing on such property shall pay to the district designated, in which such children are received and instructed, the amount of the tax on such property so levied and collected. If any such district shall fail or refuse on demand to pay the amount of any tax so collected, the school authorities of the district designated and furnishing the instructional service may recover the amount in an action therefor.

3. A designation made as provided in this section shall continue until a new designation is made or until the district superintendent or superintendents having jurisdiction over the districts affected shall otherwise order in a proceeding for the alteration of the boundaries of the districts, but no subsequent designation may be made in any school year after August first until the close of that school year.

Pursuant to Education Law §3203(3), a designation made pursuant to §3203(1) does not lapse and "remains in effect until a new designation is made" (Appeal of the Board of Education of the Harborfields Central School District, 41 Ed Dept Rep 113, Decision No. 14,631, citing Appeal of the Sole Trustee of the Hickory-South Mountain Common School District No. 1, 38 Ed Dept Rep 577, Decision No. 14,097).  This designation continues to apply even to subsequent purchasers of the property (Appeal of the Sole Trustee of the Hickory-South Mountain Common School District No. 1, 38 Dept Rep 577, Decision No. 14,097).  The parties do not dispute that, if there were students attending school in petitioner's district living in the contested border properties, respondent would be obligated to remit the property taxes attributable to such properties. 

There has also been at least one instance in which a designation pursuant to Education Law §3203 has been held to require the remittance of taxes even when there were children residing on the property who did not attend the public schools of the designated district (see Appeal of the Board of Education of the Syosset Central School District, 38 Ed Dept Rep 791, Decision No. 14,144).  In Syosset, it was determined that when a student is attending a nonpublic school, the designated district is required to provide all educational services required for resident students attending nonpublic schools, including transportation and any necessary special education services, while the other district was concurrently obligated to pay over any tax money collected on the property to the designated school district. 

Petitioner relies on Syosset, alleging that it supports the proposition that it is not "required that a student actually attend the public schools of a school district designated pursuant to Education Law §3203 in order for the designated district to be entitled to receive taxes from the adjoining district."  However, Syosset is distinguishable from the facts of this case.  In Syosset, the children were enrolled in a private school and were, therefore, potentially entitled to dual enrollment pursuant to Education Law §3602-c and entitled to transportation and other services from the district designated as their district of residence (see e.g., Education Law §§701; 912; 3635[2]).  Those children did, in fact, receive transportation services, textbooks, and a proportionate share of health service funding from the designated district.  In this appeal, however, it appears that there are no children residing at the contested borderline properties who are entitled to educational services.  The record does not specify the individual circumstances of each household, but the parties agree that children are no longer attending school in petitioner's district, either "because the child has graduated, or the child's family has moved."  Neither party alleges that any children are still living in the contested borderline properties who are eligible for enrollment in either district or are enrolled in a private school.  Therefore, Syosset is not directly applicable to this appeal. 

In fact, neither party cites to any Commissioner's decision or case that has addressed the question presented in this appeal.  Petitioner asserts that "research has disclosed no judicial or Commissioner's authority" on the matter, and my review of the relevant case law has confirmed that this appeal appears to present a novel issue.  Accordingly, I have reviewed the legislative history of Education Law §3203 for further guidance. 

A review of the legislative history of Education Law §3203 provides little direction on the statute's interpretation under these unique circumstances.  In its original enactment in 1932, Education Law §567-a (the predecessor to Education Law §3203) was created to clarify residency in those situations in which dwellings were intersected by the boundary line between two school districts.  The documentation included in the Bill Jacket for that section provides no guidance regarding the remittance of taxes from one district to another  (Bill Jacket, L 1932, ch 309).  In 1947, the Legislature recodified the Education Law of 1910 into the form which is recognizable today, and recodified Education Law §567-a as Education Law §3203 without any specific discussion of or changes to that section (Bill Jacket, L 1947, ch 820). 

The Legislature did specifically address Education Law §3203 in 1985, when it expanded the right to designate one school district over another to owners of property with a single family dwelling unit that is intersected by a line between school districts (L 1985, ch 13).  However, the legislative history for this enactment similarly provides no specific guidance on the issue of the remittance of taxes under the circumstances presented herein (Bill Jacket, L 1985, ch 13).  I note that critics of the bill focused their concerns regarding tax remittance only on the potential increase in administrative burden, generally, and did not address circumstances in which eligible students no longer reside at the properties in question (Letter from Legis Comm of Rural Schools Program, March 21, 1985, at 13, Bill Jacket, L 1985, ch 13; Letter from St Educ Dept, March 15, 1985, at 11, Bill Jacket, L 1985, ch 13).  A review of the legislative history, therefore, provides no specific guidance on the issue presented in the instant appeal.  Lacking such guidance to aid in the interpretation of this statute, I must turn to the principles of statutory construction to determine how Education Law §3203 is to be interpreted. 

In interpreting a statute, the plain meaning of the words govern (McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes §94) and, where the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, a court must give effect to the plain meaning of the words used (Judge Rotenberg Educational Center v. Maul, 91 NY2d 298; Doctors Council v. New York City Employees' Retirement System, 71 NY2d 669; Zaldin v. Concord Hotel, 48 NY2d 107). Absent ambiguity, courts may not resort to rules of construction to broaden the scope and application of a statute or to declare the intent of the law when the words are unequivocal (Matter of Raritan Development Corp. v. Silva, 91 NY2d 98). 

Respondent alleges that it is "natural and obvious" that the language "the district that levies and collects a tax...shall pay to the district designated, in which such children are received and instructed, the amount of the tax on such property so levied and collected" and "the school authorities of the district designated and furnishing the instructional service may recover the amount in an action" in §3203(2) shows a legislative intent to create a firm limitation on when such taxes must be remitted to situations in which the designated district is providing services to students residing on the property (Education Law §3203[2])(emphasis added). 

Generally, legislative intent is to be ascertained from the words and language used, and the language is to be generally construed according to its most natural and obvious meaning, without resorting to an artificial or forced construction (McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes §94).  No part of the statute may be ignored, because the statute must be construed as a whole, and all parts are to be read and construed together to determine the legislative intent (McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes §97).  The parts of the statute must be harmonized with each other and with the general intent of the statute, and effect and meaning must, if possible, be given to the entire statute and to each part of the statute (McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes §98).

Education Law §3203 can be broken down into simple component parts, each of which are essential to the implementation to that statute. 

Subdivisions (1) and (3) of Education Law §3203 both address the continuing nature of a designation, specifically, that it continues until a subsequent designation is made or the boundary line of the districts changes.  However, subdivision (2) of §3203 is the only provision in the statute that addresses the collection and remittance of school taxes.   

Petitioner alleges that, because a designation pursuant to Education Law §3203 persists until a new designation is made, even if the property itself changes hands, that respondent continues to owe petitioner the amount of school taxes levied and collected on the contested borderline properties (see Appeal of the Board of Education of the Harborfields Central School District, 41 Ed Dept Rep 113, Decision No. 14,631; Appeal of the Sole Trustee of the Hickory-South Mountain Common School District No. 1, 38 Ed Dept Rep 577, Decision No. 14,097).  Respondent does not appear to dispute that the designation on the contested borderline properties persists until a new one is made, but rather alleges that the plain language of Education Law §3203(2) limits a designated district's ability to seek relief to circumstances in which a district is "designated and furnishing the instructional services."  Interpreting the language of §3203(2) according to its natural and obvious meaning, the phrase "the school authorities of the district designated and furnishing the instructional service may recover the amount in an action therefor" (emphasis added) imposes two conditions that must be met before a designated district may recover school taxes from the other district: that it is the designated district and that it is furnishing instructional services.  Holding otherwise would require that I impermissibly read the language on furnishing instruction out of the statute.  Based on that language, I find that the intent of the statute is to allow the designated district to recover taxes only when it is liable for the provision of instructional services and is incurring costs as a result of such designation.

Moreover, the primary purpose of Education Law §3203 is to establish a student's residence in a school district for all purposes in receiving educational services (Appeal of the Board of Education of the Syosset Central School District, 38 Ed Dept Rep 791, Decision No. 14,144).  This is consistent with the title of Education Law §3203, which indicates that it is intended to provide for selection of a school district for the attendance of children.  Interpreting Education Law §3203(2) in accordance with its plain language to limit recovery of taxes by a designated district is consistent with that purpose.[2]  If a child once again takes up residence in the borderline property in the future, the holding in Syosset (that a designation persists until a new one is made) requires that a designated district would once again have the right to seek the remittance of school taxes, on these borderline properties, and to pursue an action to recover those taxes, if necessary.  Given that it appears there are no children residing on the contested borderline properties in question, the petition must, therefore, be dismissed.[3] 

In light of this disposition, I need not address the parties' remaining contentions.

THE APPEAL IS DISMISSED.

END OF FILE

 

[1] There are two additional properties which respondent asserts fall under this category.  These properties are not referenced in the petition, and petitioner has not stated that it is seeking the remittance of taxes for these properties, so they will not be specifically considered herein.

 

[2] Interpreting the statute as detailed herein, I find that petitioner's argument - that the Legislature did not explicitly provide for a condition upon which a designation is deemed to lapse and, therefore, that exclusion must have been intended - is without merit.  To presume that the Legislature intended that a designated district was entitled to the remittance of school taxes indefinitely and without any limitations ignores the language limiting when a district may pursue an action, as contemplated in Education Law §3203(2).

 

[3] While I am constrained to apply all the language of Education Law §3203(2) as written and dismiss this appeal, I recognize the concern expressed by petitioner about the impact on designated districts of having fiscal responsibility shift from year to year based on whether children reside in the boundary property and are entitled to services from the designated district.  However, a statutory amendment is the appropriate means to address that concern.