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Decision No. 12,825

Appeal of THERESA PARRISH, JOAN PUCCIA, ROSEMARIE NOWICKI, FERN SASSO, DOROTHY POPE, GERALYN MURN, CRAIG SCHNEIDER, ANNMARIE SCHNEIDER, GARY CAMPBELL, FRAN CAMPBELL and FRANCINE RUSH from action of the Board of Education of the West Islip Union Free School District relating to the reconfiguration of schools.

Decision No. 12,825

(October 26, 1992)

Guercio & Guercio, Esqs., attorneys for respondent, Richard E. Trachtenberg, Esq., of counsel

SOBOL, Commissioner.--Petitioners, parents of children enrolled in the West Islip Union Free School District, appeal from the decision of its Board of Education ("respondent"), to reconfigure its schools by moving fifth grade students from the elementary to the middle schools. Since each appeal arises from the same set of facts and each seeks similar relief, I am consolidating them for decision. The appeals must be dismissed.

In January 1992, respondent established two committees. On January 9, 1992, the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee was formed which convened between 10 and 15 times and issued a report on May 7, 1992, recommending staffing cuts, the combination of resource room classes, and requiring department chairpersons to teach two or three classes. A second committee, the School Consolidation Committee, comprised of an outside consultant, parents, representatives of the PTA, local business, and district employees, was formed to study the various proposals and recommend to respondent the best configuration for the school district. That committee met on seven occasions between February 26, 1992 and April 9, 1992 and considered eleven alternatives. Among the configurations considered was the existing one which provided separate school buildings for K-5, 6-8 and 9-12. In making its recommendation, that committee also considered six alternatives in depth, and reviewed the updated consultant reports from the 1990-91 School Closing Committee.

On April 9, 1992, the Consolidation Committee presented to respondent two options, both of which recommended the closing of one elementary school. At the same time, the interim superintendent conducted a study and issued a recommendation to close one of the two middle schools. In addition to the regular board meeting, the proposals were discussed at two special meetings where the public was given the opportunity to speak. In addition, the PTA sponsored workshops to review the proposals on March 25 and 26, 1992, which board members attended. Respondent also acknowledges receipt of a petition signed by approximately 2400 residents seeking to retain the existing building configuration.

On May 6, 1992, respondent voted by a 4-3 majority, to adopt the recommendation to close the Masera Elementary School and adopt a grade configuration of K-4 in the five remaining elementary school buildings, 5-8 in the two middle school buildings and 9-12 in the high school. On May 14, 1992, respondent unanimously agreed to present its proposed 1992-93 budget to the voters. The proposed budget included the previously adopted reconfiguration plan which was approved by a vote of 2,965 to 1,683 on June 10, 1992. On June 17, 1992, respondent voted unanimously to approve a redistricting plan that established new attendance boundaries. Thereafter, a Transition Committee was established to assist in the transfer of the fifth grade program to the middle school. That committee consisted of eight parents, eight teachers and four administrators. The committee met on three occasions while a subcommittee met on at least two other occasions, with community members in attendance at each meeting. On June 26, 1992, the Transition Committee submitted its findings to the superintendent and respondent.

Petitioners contend that respondent's reconfiguration plan is not in the best educational interests of the students and, therefore, violates Education Law '1709. In particular, they assert that the middle schools do not have age appropriate playground equipment; that fifth graders will have less recess time at the middle schools, less gym time, and less opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities; that certain clubs will be eliminated and that the children will be isolated from younger children. Petitioners assert that respondent's study of the issues prior to reaching its decision was inadequate. Petitioners also complain that because the community was not given adequate opportunities to participate in the decision making process, the determination was contrary to the public will. Petitioners seek an order postponing the implementation of the reconfiguration plan for one year to ensure open communication between the community and respondent and a thorough investigation of the educational impact of the plan on fifth graders.

Respondent asserts that its plan to reconfigure its grades is both within its authority pursuant to Education Law '1709 and in the best educational interests of the students; that although formal hearings are not required by law, the public was given numerous opportunities to be heard; that a thorough study was completed before the decision was made; and that petitioners' claims with regard to the impact of the reconfiguration on the participation of fifth grade students in recess, gym, and extra-curricular activities and their potential isolation are without merit.

A board of education has the authority and responsibility to manage and administer the affairs of the school district, including the assignment of pupils to schools therein (Matter of Older, et al. v. Board of Education, 27 NY2d 333; Appeal of Cullen, 32 Ed Dept Rep ___; Decision #12798; dated September 8, 1992). Moreover, a board of education has broad discretion (Matter of Addabbo v. Donovan, 22 AD2d 383, aff'd 16 NY2d 619, cert den 382 US 905; Appeal of Cullen, supra) in the assignment of pupils to schools. Accordingly, a decision by the board of education to reorganize its grade configurations will only be overturned when found to be arbitrary, capricious or contrary to sound educational policy (Matter of Older, supra; Appeal of Cullen, supra; Appeal of Goldup, 30 Ed Dept Rep 477).

The record reflects that respondent's Consolidation Committee considered at least eleven different alternatives. Community members were given not only several opportunities to speak on the issues, but were invited to sit on the committee charged with making recommendations to respondent. Additionally, the record indicates that before it cast its vote, respondent received and fully considered a petition signed by 2400 voters opposed to the reconfiguration. Finally, the budget, which incorporated costs associated with the reconfiguration, passed by more than 1200 votes. Given the extent of the study predating respondent's actions and the record of community involvement in the decision making process, I find that respondent's determination was made after careful consideration of the facts and issues and was not, therefore, arbitrary or capricious.

In an appeal before the Commissioner of Education, the petitioner has the burden of establishing the facts upon which he or she seeks relief (8 NYCRR 275.10; Appeal of Verity, 31 Ed Dept Rep 485; Appeal of Singh, 30 id. 284; Appeal of Pickreign, 28 id. 163; Matter of Keiling, 25 Ed Dept Rep 122). Petitioners offer conclusory statements that the reconfiguration will psychologically harm fifth grade students and that their recess, gym and extra-curricular activities will be reduced. However, since petitioners' claims are based, in their entirety, on mere speculation, the appeals must be dismissed.

I have considered petitioners' remaining claims and find them without merit.