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Decision No. 14,053

Appeal of the LANCASTER PARENT ALLIANCE ON BEHALF OF ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN IN THE EASTERN AND SOUTHERN SECTIONS OF LANCASTER from action of the Board of Education of the Lancaster Central School District regarding redistricting.

Decision No. 14,053

(December 21, 1998)

Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear, LLP, attorneys for respondent, Jeff Swiatek, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal the decision of the Board of Education of the Lancaster Central School District ("respondent") to redistrict its elementary schools. The appeal must be dismissed.

Over the past several years the Town of Lancaster ("town") has experienced significant growth in its southern and eastern portions. This has led to a shift in elementary school enrollment whereby schools located nearer the growth areas are experiencing overcrowding. Meanwhile, the John A. Sciole Elementary School ("Sciole"), which is located in the northern part of town, has experienced declining enrollments. Respondent's superintendent, Dr. Joseph L. Girardi, met with district staff during the fall of 1997 to discuss redistricting to address overcrowding, class size imbalances, and the underpopulation at Sciole. As a result of these meetings, at a January 19, 1998 board of education work session, two redistricting options were presented to respondent for discussion. At its January 26, 1998 board meeting, respondent voted to adopt the first option ("Option 1"). Under this plan, 115 students residing in areas in the southern and eastern parts of the town are assigned to attend Sciole and another 15 students are reassigned to another elementary school. Petitioners are a group of parents whose children would be affected by the implementation of Option 1.

District residents were able to comment on the plan at both the work session and the regular board meeting and expressed concerns regarding the redistricting. District residents continued to raise objections even after respondent voted to adopt Option 1. Respondent affirmed its support of Option 1 at its February 9, 1998 meeting. However, due to continued input and alternative plans presented by district residents, respondent authorized Dr. Girardi to form a committee, which consisted of representatives from the elementary schools, administration and parents. The committee met three times and discussed various alternatives to Option 1. As a result of these meetings, Dr. Girardi submitted a recommendation to respondent to retain Option 1, but to also incorporate two changes in the plan. The changes eliminated the proposed reassignment of 15 students and allowed 33 other students in their final elementary year the option of remaining at their current school. At its March 9, 1998 meeting, respondent adopted the modified Option 1. Petitioners commenced this appeal on February 24, 1998. Petitioners also requested interim relief, which was denied on March 26, 1998.

Petitioners contend that respondent's redistricting plan is arbitrary, lacks foresight and fails to solve enrollment problems. Petitioners also allege that respondent's decision is part of a continued pattern of geographic discrimination, that the redistricting is not educationally sound and is inconsistent with the Compact for Learning, and that respondent acted too hastily in adopting the plan. Petitioners request that the redistricting plan be overturned and respondent be required to develop a long term plan for redistricting the entire town.

Respondent contends that the appeal should be dismissed for lack of standing because petitioners are an unincorporated association. Respondent also contends that the appeal should be dismissed as moot because the appeal was brought after the adoption of Option 1, which is no longer in effect because of its subsequent modification. Respondent argues that it properly and rationally exercised its authority in adopting the redistricting plan. Respondent contends that sending the students from the eastern and southern sections of town is a rational plan because students from these "neighborhoods" can all be accommodated at Sciole, instead of being split among several elementary schools. Respondent denies that it is geographically discriminating against certain areas of town.

As a threshold matter, the appeal must be dismissed for lack of standing. This appeal was brought by the Lancaster Parent Alliance on Behalf of Elementary School Children in the Eastern and Southern Sections of Lancaster, a group which the petition asserts consists of 40 to 50 parents from the southern and eastern portions of the Town of Lancaster. However, there is no indication that this association is incorporated. An unincorporated association, such as this group, lacks standing to maintain an appeal to the Commissioner (Appeal of Concerned Parents and Taxpayers of Abraham Wing Common School District, 36 Ed Dept Rep 165; Appeal of Concerned Taxpayers Awareness Group, 35 id. 448; Appeal of The Plaza School Playground Committee, 35 id. 83). Therefore, the appeal must be dismissed for lack of standing.

Even if the appeal were not dismissed on procedural grounds, it would fail on the merits. Pursuant to Education Law "1709(3) and (33), a board of education has the authority and responsibility to manage and administer the affairs of a school district, including the assignment of pupils to schools therein (Matter of Older, et al. v. Board of Education, 27 NY2d 333; Appeal of Johnson, et al., 37 Ed Dept Rep 465; Appeal of Damadeo, et al., 36 id. 201; Appeal of Barbara D. and James D., 34 id. 118). Moreover, a board of education has broad discretion in its assignment of pupils to schools (Matter of Addabbo v. Donovan, 22 AD2d 383; aff’d 16 NY2d 619, cert den 382 US 905; Appeal of Johnson, et al., supra; Appeal of Parrish, 32 Ed Dept Rep 261). Accordingly, a board’s decision to reorganize its schools will only be overturned when found to be arbitrary, capricious or contrary to sound educational policy (Matter of Older, supra; Appeal of Parrish, supra). Moreover, petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating that respondent’s action is arbitrary, capricious or contrary to sound educational policy (Appeal of Sherwood, et al., 33 Ed Dept Rep 410; Appeal of McNerney, et al., 28 id. 250; Appeal of Malang, 26 id. 134). I find that petitioners have failed to meet that burden of proof.

Petitioners agree that redistricting is necessary, but disagree with respondent's plan for doing so. Petitioners raise numerous issues regarding projected population growth and the long-term effectiveness of Option 1 in addressing the enrollment problem, as well as issues such as the educational impact on the affected students and the lack of input from district residents when formulating the plans. The record indicates, however, that respondent attempted to address these issues. Dr. Girardi and his staff developed criteria for developing the redistricting plan that included maintaining neighborhood schools to the greatest extent possible, minimizing disruption, reducing class sizes district-wide, providing for two special education classrooms in each elementary school building and adopting a plan that would be effective for at least five years. After identifying a number of options, only the two that satisfied these criteria were presented to respondent. In response to the concerns of district residents, respondent authorized the formation of a committee, which included district residents and, as a result, modified Option 1.

In sum, while I am sympathetic to petitioners' concerns, there is no legal basis to grant the relief they seek (Appeal of Kershaw, 37 Ed Dept Rep 186; Appeal of Barbara D. and James D., supra). Based on the record before me, I conclude that respondent's decision in this matter was not arbitrary, capricious or contrary to sound educational policy.

In light of the foregoing, I will not address the parties' remaining contentions.