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Decision No. 13,945

Appeal of DIANE P. on behalf of JENNIFER P., from action of the Board of Education and Superintendent of the Parishville-Hopkinton Central School District regarding the selection of co-valedictorians.

Decision No. 13,945

(May 21, 1998)

Cappello & Linden, attorneys for respondents, Roger B. Linden, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the decision of the superintendent and Board of Education of the Parishville-Hopkinton Central School District ("respondents") to appoint co-valedictorians for the 1997 graduating high school class. The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioner is the mother of Jennifer P., a senior at Parishville-Hopkinton Central High School during the 1996-1997 school year. On February 24, 1997, respondent board, upon recommendation of the superintendent, voted 6 to 0 to name co-valedictorians and a salutatorian for the class. Prior to the vote, the board was not told the identity of the three students with the highest averages. However, the board president abstained from the vote, since he suspected his daughter, K.K., was one of the three students involved. As it turned out, the three students with the highest averages were Jennifer P. with an average of 93.89, K.K. with an average of 93.83, and J.W. with an average of 93.06. J.W.’s father also served on the school board. He claimed that he was unaware of the possibility that his daughter was involved, or he, too, would have abstained.

The board based its decision on its policy which provided for the designation of valedictorian and salutatorian on cumulative averages but which allowed the "Superintendent of Schools flexibility in case of small fraction of a point difference in naming a second Valedictorian or Salutatorian (declare a tie)."

Petitioner learned of the board's vote the following day. She attended the next school board meeting on March 17, 1997 wherein she presented the board with a petition by members of the graduating class protesting the board’s selection process. Respondents stood by their decision. Petitioner commenced this appeal on March 26, 1997. Petitioner's request for interim relief was denied on April 11, 1997.

Petitioner alleges that her daughter was unfairly named co-valedictorian as opposed to valedictorian of the class. She contends respondents inconsistently applied the policy, and any "flexibility" was meant to benefit the children of two school board members. Specifically, petitioner contends that the policy was invoked three times prior to 1997, but in very different situations. In 1979 the board named an "honorary" valedictorian in honor of an individual’s achievements. In 1986, co-valedictorians were named, but only after the original valedictorian agreed to share the honor with another student. In 1993, the valedictorian and salutatorian were separated by .05 points, less than in this case, yet co-valedictorians were not appointed. Petitioner asks that I direct that Jennifer P. be named sole valedictorian for the Parishville-Hopkinton Central High School class of 1997.

Respondents contend that this petition is untimely since the board’s decision was made on February 24, 1997 and the petition not filed until March 26, 1997. Respondents further claim that the petition must be dismissed for failure to join K.K., the designated co-valedictorian, and J.W., the designated salutatorian as necessary parties.

Respondents also allege that no harm has been suffered by petitioner or her child. Jennifer was designated co-valedictorian of the class and ranked first in the class. Finally, respondents contend that they acted reasonably.

I will first address respondents' procedural defenses. Respondents argue that this petition is untimely. An appeal to the Commissioner must be instituted within 30 days from the making of the decision or the performance of the act complained of, unless excused by the Commissioner for good cause shown (8 NYCRR "275.16). The record indicates that the board made its decision on February 24, 1997 and this petition was served on March 26, 1997, within the 30 day time limit. Thus, the petition is timely.

Respondents also allege that the appeal must be dismissed for failure to join the other students as necessary parties. A party whose rights would be adversely affected by a determination of an appeal in favor of petitioner is a necessary party and must be joined as such (Appeal of Edward G., 36 Ed Dept Rep 9; Appeal of Concerned Taxpayers Awareness Group, 35 id. 448; Appeal of Chesbrough, 32 id. 647). In this case, the interests of the other co-valedictorian and salutatorian would be adversely affected if the Commissioner were to grant the relief requested, in that K.K. would be salutatorian and J.W. would not. Joinder requires that the necessary party be named as a respondent, served with the petition, and afforded a genuine opportunity to respond to the allegations (Appeal of Sharp, 35 Ed Dept Rep 471; Appeal of Osterman, 30 id. 290). In this case, both K.K. and J.W. were served with a notice of petition and petition. The notice of petition alerts a party that she is required to appear in the appeal and answer the allegations contained in the petition (8 NYCRR "275.11). Furthermore, both of the students' fathers were members of the school board, and in that capacity had notice of this appeal and the fact that their daughters' interests might be affected. Therefore, under the facts of this case, the technical defect of failing to name K.K. and J.W. in the caption is deminimis, did not result in any prejudice, and is not a sufficient basis for me to dismiss this appeal.

The appeal, however, must be dismissed on the merits. Designation of a valedictorian or salutatorian is a local award for which reasonable standards may be imposed by a board of education (Appeal of Tenbus and Kraack, 35 Ed Dept Rep 320; Appeal of Konkoski, 33 id. 303; Appeal of Maloney, 33 id. 154). In this case, the board had a long-standing written policy which allowed it to name co-valedictorians in the case of a small fraction separating the top students. Here, less than seven one-hundredths of a point separated the two top students. Consequently, I cannot find respondents' determination to be arbitrary or unreasonable. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the board did not apply its policy fairly. Because two school board members had children in the graduating class, the names of the individuals involved were withheld from the board prior to the vote. One board member who suspected that his child might be involved abstained from voting. Another board member with a child in the class did not abstain as he did not believe his child was among the top three students. In any event, even had he abstained, the motion would still have passed by a vote of 5 to 0. Thus, I find no basis to overturn the vote.