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Decision No. 14,159

Appeal of ROBERT D. BROWER from action of the Board of Education of the Malone Central School District regarding the reconfiguration of the district's elementary schools.

Decision No. 14,159

(July 15, 1999)

Law Office of John A. Piasecki and Thomas C. LaRocque, attorneys for respondent, John A. Piasecki, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the decision of the Board of Education of the Malone Central School District ("respondent") to reconfigure its elementary schools. The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioner is the parent of three elementary age students in respondent’s district. The district has three elementary schools, Davis, Flanders, and St. Joseph's. As of October 1997, each school housed grades one through five. In addition, respondent leased a kindergarten center for a half-day kindergarten program.

In October 1997 respondent proposed a plan to add a district-wide pre-kindergarten ("pre-k") and full-day kindergarten to Davis. On October 22, 1997, district voters approved a referendum to build an addition to Davis to accommodate the pre-k and kindergarten. In November 1997, a district configuration committee was formed to examine the issue of reconfiguring the grade levels at Davis. The committee included staff and administrators from each of the elementary schools, the assistant superintendent and a board of education member.

At a March 1998 meeting of respondent board, the configuration committee presented a proposal to reconfigure Davis to house all district students in pre-k through grade two and to reconfigure Flanders and St. Joseph's to house all district students in grades three through five. A public information meeting was held at Davis on April 6, 1998 to discuss this proposal. On April 27, 1998 respondent voted to accept the recommendations of the configuration committee. This appeal ensued.

Petitioner objects to the reconfiguration insofar as it houses all pre-k through second grade students at Davis and houses all students in grades three through five at Flanders and St. Joseph's. Petitioner contends that the parents of children attending Flanders and St. Joseph’s were not properly informed of and had no input into the reconfiguration decision. Petitioner alleges that the informational mailing sent out prior to the October 1997 referendum was misleading, in that it gave the impression that the capital improvements to Davis were solely for the purpose of adding the pre-k and kindergarten. He also claims parents from Flanders and St. Joseph's were unaware the plan would affect their children due to the denomination of the plan as the "Davis Reconfiguration."

Petitioner further complains that there was no parental representation on the configuration committee. In addition, he maintains that respondent did not vote on the reconfiguration proposal at its March 10, 1998 meeting due to the public outcry from parents attending that meeting. Petitioner requests that I prevent respondent from implementing the plan until a public poll of all interested taxpayers is conducted.

Respondent denies that it misled the community prior to the referendum on the Davis addition. Prior to the election parents were told the only definite plan at that time was to relocate all pre-k and kindergarten classes to Davis. Subsequent to the passage of the referendum, the project architect informed respondent that a final decision would have to be made concerning the grade level configuration of Davis.

Respondent further contends that the configuration committee solicited comments from the staff of all of the elementary schools in the district. Respondent acknowledges that there was vocal opposition to the reconfiguration proposal from some parents, however, respondent claims there also was substantial parental support for the proposal. In support of this contention, respondent submits letters from three different school improvement committees (whose membership includes parents) in support of the proposal.

Respondent also maintains that it plans to implement the reconfiguration on either a two or three year phase-in, beginning in the fall of 1999. According to respondent this would be done to cause as little disruption as possible to the current students.

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 Damadeo, et al., 36 Ed Dept Rep 201, Decision No. 13,701; Appeal Barbara D. and James D., 34 id. 118, Decision No. 13,252; Appeal of Parrish, et al., 32 id. 261, Decision No. 12,825). 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 Parrish, et al., supra). 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, et al. v. Board of Education, 23 NY2d 333; Appeal of Lancaster Parent Alliance, 38 Ed Dept Rep 356, Decision No. 14,053; Appeal of Damadeo, 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, Decision No. 13,096; Appeal of McNerney, et al., 28 id. 250, Decision No. 12,097; Appeal of Malang, 26 id. 134, Decision No. 11,703). I find that petitioner has failed to meet this burden.

Petitioner objects to the plan to house all pre-k through second grade students at Davis until there has been some type of district-wide poll or referendum on the plan. However, there is no requirement for a district to conduct such a poll prior to implementing a reconfiguration plan. While a board of education may seek advice from the community, it is ultimately the board’s responsibility to make the decision to reorganize a district (Appeal of Voss, 31 Ed Dept Rep 56, Decision No. 12,567).

The reconfiguration plan was the result of a five-month study by a configuration committee composed of educators. Respondent found identifiable benefits to retaining all of the district’s younger children in one building and redistributing the remaining elementary school students between the district's other two elementary schools. Under the plan, kindergartners would not have to change schools after one or two years at Davis, and all children would change schools at the same time, i.e., at the end of grades two, five and eight. In addition, a single pre-k through second grade building would focus on early childhood concerns, promote more efficient use of primary level resources and services, and eliminate the need for children to change schools when moving to another geographic area of the district during the year. Petitioner may not agree with respondent’s rationale for the reconfiguration, but there is nothing in the record to indicate that the plan is arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to sound educational policy.

While I am sympathetic to petitioner’s claim of lack of parental involvement, I cannot conclude that the plan was so devoid of input as to warrant annulling it. The superintendent conducted a community information session on the radio (which was broadcast on four occasions), and several articles appeared in the local newspaper. Furthermore, meetings were held at all three elementary schools, with approval for the project voiced by parent groups from St. Joseph’s and Flanders.

Nor has petitioner offered evidence that respondent misled the electorate in the October referendum. That referendum was not predicated on a reconfiguration; it simply authorized the use of district funds to renovate and build an addition to Davis. In any event, a reconfiguration is not subject to approval by the voters of the district at a referendum (Appeal of Voss, supra).