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Decision No. 12,571

Appeal of MICHAEL A. and MARGARET KORNSTEIN, WILLIAM and COLLEEN CUNNINGHAM, JOHN A. and VIRGINIA COULON, JAMES and JANE O'NEILL, ALEC and ELLEN COURTNEY and THOMAS and MARY BLAKE from action of the Board of Education of the Bethlehem Central School District regarding school district reorganization.

Decision No. 12,571

(August 23, 1991)

J. Marc Hannibal, Esq., attorney for petitioners

Fritts & Whiting, Esqs., attorneys for respondent, Roger M. Fritts, Esq., of counsel

SOBOL, Commissioner.--Petitioners challenge a determination of respondent board of education modifying elementary school attendance zones in the Bethlehem Central School District. The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioners are residents of the Bethlehem Central School District (the district). They are the parents of children who would have attended the Glenmont Elementary School (Glenmont) prior to reorganization of the district's elementary school attendance zones. Due to the reorganization, petitioners' children are now assigned to the Hamagrael Elementary School (Hamagrael).

Respondent's elementary school population has been increasing since the early 1980s. In November 1987, respondent appointed two task forces, each composed of staff, student, parent and community representatives, to examine the district's future needs. One task force examined issues relating to enrollment, while the other concentrated on facilities. The task forces presented their findings to the board of education in February 1988.

Following presentation of the task force reports, the board instructed a combined enrollment/facilities committee to develop options for meeting the district's facilities needs. This combined committee (whose members were selected from the two original task forces) presented the board with a report on May 18, 1988, analyzing eleven possible courses of action. The report concluded that the district's elementary school facilities would be inadequate during projected periods of peak student enrollment. The committee added that the issue of space shortage in the elementary schools was "compounded by the growing imbalance between the location of the schools and the student population." The report clearly stated that redistricting would be a necessary component of any option ultimately adopted by the board.

Following its consideration of the committee's report, respondent opted to construct additions to three elementary schools. The voters approved a bond resolution for this purpose in May 1989. In 1990, as the construction neared completion, respondent turned its attention to the matter of redistricting. On July 11, 1990, the board voted to retain Roger Creighton Associates, Inc. (RCAI), a private consulting firm, to study options regarding modification of the district's elementary school attendance zones.

On January 9, 1991 the superintendent of schools and a representative of RCAI presented the RCAI report to the board of education. The superintendent also supplied the board with his own recommendations on redistricting, which were substantially similar to the RCAI conclusions. In pertinent part, the reports recommended the following attendance zone modifications:

1. reducing the "Elsmere" zone by enlarging the "Slingerlands" zone;

2. enlarging the "Clarksville" zone by appending other portions of Slingerlands; and

3. reducing the Glenmont zone by enlarging contiguous sections of the Hamagrael zone.

The board held open sessions on January 16, 23 and 30, 1991 to receive public comment on these proposals. After the comment period on January 30, 1991 (which included a presentation by petitioners), the board of education deliberated on the superintendent's recommendations. The board approved several amendments, including one which provided all fourth-grade students with the option of remaining in their current schools. A motion to permit petitioners' children to remain in the Glenmont school was defeated. At the close of the January 30 meeting, with the aforementioned amendments, the board voted to adopt the superintendent's recommendations. Petitioners commenced this appeal on March 1, 1991.

Petitioners advance several arguments challenging the RCAI report. I will address these arguments only to the extent that they are relevant in assessing the overall rationality of respondent's redistricting plan.

The RCAI report sets forth a list of six "criteria" which, according to the report, were applied during RCAI's evaluation of possible changes to the district's enrollment boundaries. The criteria include, for example, maintaining stable boundaries over time, maintaining optimal building utilization, minimizing transportation costs, and keeping micro-neighborhoods together. Petitioners argue that the redistricting plan should fail because the board of education never formally approved these criteria. I disagree. The disputed criteria were used exclusively by RCAI for the purpose of developing its report. Petitioners overlook the fact that the RCAI report was merely advisory. Its purpose was to assist the board of education in making an informed decision about redistricting. Respondent was free to accept or reject any part of the RCAI report - and in fact the board did substitute its judgment over RCAI's recommendations on a number of points. Given the advisory nature of the RCAI report, I find no merit in the contention that the board was required to approve development of RCAI's criteria.

Petitioners also assert that the letter agreement between RCAI and the district required RCAI to produce three sets of alternative boundary-line combinations. Because the RCAI report does not contain three separate sets of alternatives, petitioners argue, the RCAI report is necessarily defective, and the entire redistricting plan is consequently unreasonable. Again, I am unable to sustain petitioner's objections. As indicated, the RCAI report was merely advisory. In any event, the letter agreement between RCAI and the district states that RCAI would prepare "not to exceed three sets of boundaries." Consequently, it would appear that RCAI's preparation of one set satisfies the language of the agreement.

Petitioners next contend that respondent's decision to reorganize the elementary school attendance zones is arbitrary and capricious because it reflects insufficient study and a failure to consider other alternatives. They argue that the board should have explored alternative boundary-line combinations, as well as alternatives to redistricting in general. Regarding the latter argument, the May 1988 report of the combined task force analyzed eleven possible solutions to the district's facilities dilemma. Contrary to petitioners' view, I find that the board's overall study of its facilities problem - including redistricting - began with the appointment of the first two task forces in 1987, continued steadily through 1991, and included the consideration of several options. I similarly find meritless petitioners' claim that the board of education failed to consider alternative boundary-line combinations prior to selecting those which it formally adopted on January 30, 1991. On January 27, 1991, petitioners supplied respondent with several sets of boundary-line alternatives. The record indicates that petitioners were afforded the opportunity to speak at the board's public session on January 23, 1991, and that they presented their alternatives formally to the board prior to its vote on January 30, 1991. Respondent also suggests that every member of the board of education (except for one) met personally with petitioners - sometimes in petitioners' homes - to discuss the issues. Under these facts, I find that the board did consider petitioners' alternate proposals, but that it rejected them in favor of a different approach.

Petitioners further argue that the board of education failed to discuss redistricting for the six-month period between July 1990 and January 1991. The record indicates that the board in fact addressed this issue in December 1990. With that exception, the record appears to support petitioners' contention. Significantly, however, petitioners focus on precisely the period of time (i.e., July 1990-January 1991) when RCAI was preparing its report. A reasonable inference can be drawn from the record before me that the board tabled its redistricting discussions pending receipt of the formal studies which it had commissioned on this issue. I find nothing unreasonable in such a decision. To the contrary, the board's action evidences an appropriate commitment to informed decisionmaking.

Petitioners contend that respondent's adoption of the "grandfather" option (i.e., the provision permitting fourth-grade students to remain in their current schools) is unreasonable because it causes students from the same household to attend different elementary schools. The reasonableness of such a practice depends upon the particular circumstances at issue. I note that the grandfather provision in this case is merely an option, however, and that fourth-graders are free to change schools along with their siblings, should they so desire. For this reason, I cannot sustain petitioners' argument.

Petitioners further argue that the district should have exempted their children from having to change schools, because for some students (i.e., second-graders) the change would represent a third school in as many years. Respondent has long required students to attend different schools for kindergarten and first grade. District reports in the record indicate that the K-1 building-change practice has had no negative impact on students. Absent evidence to the contrary, I find no basis for determining that students will be educationally disadvantaged by a second building-change, particularly in light of the orientation and transition plan which the board has developed for affected students and their parents.

Petitioners articulate additional objections to the board's actions. In preparing its report, RCAI defined a series of "cells," or neighborhoods. District personnel assisted in defining the cells. RCAI then considered different combinations of cells, adding them to and subtracting them from existing school enrollment boundaries, until it found "solutions" reflecting favorable enrollment balances. The boundary alteration giving rise to this appeal involved transferring children living in cells 1, 4 and 4C (i.e., petitioners' children) from the Glenmont zone to the Hamagrael zone. Petitioners argue that another cell, cell 4B, should have been transferred to Hamagrael instead of cells 1, 4 and 4C. Petitioners contend that moving cell 4B would more appropriately have achieved the district's goals, because it was geographically closer to Hamagrael and contained a similar number of children. Petitioners also contend that the modifications adopted by the board of education on January 30, 1991, which exempted approximately 24 students from the proposed Glenmont-Hamagrael move, were unfair because they did not also exempt petitioners' children.

Decisions regarding school district reorganization are within the discretion of the board of education and will not be set aside unless they are arbitrary, capricious or contrary to sound educational policy (Appeal of McNerney, 28 Ed Dept Rep 250, 252; see, Appeal of Weiner, 29 Ed Dept Rep 45, 48; Appeal of Casas, 29 Ed Dept Rep 26, 27; Appeal of Maynard, 28 Ed Dept Rep 198, 200). The question is not whether petitioners would have decided the issues differently, but whether the district's reorganization plan, and the board's decisions, were rational. Respondent has demonstrated that its decisions regarding "cell 4B" and the January 30 modifications were based on projections for future enrollment and the intent to maintain quality space not just for classrooms, but for art and music, remedial instruction and enriched programming as well. On the record before me, I find nothing irrational in respondent's decisionmaking. Under prevailing authority, therefore, I find no basis for overturning the district's plan.