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Decision No. 14,311

Appeal of JOSEPH P. MURPHY, et al. from action of the Board of Education of the City School District of the City of Rye and Superintendent Dr. Edward J. Shine regarding curriculum.

Decision No. 14,311

(February 23, 2000)

George A. Pierce and Charles Brody, Esqs., attorneys for petitioners

Plunkett & Jaffe, attorneys for respondents, Phyllis Jaffe, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal a determination of the Board of Education of the City School District of the City of Rye ("respondent board") to discontinue the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps ("NJROTC") program at Rye High School after the 1997-98 school year. The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioner Murphy is a resident and taxpayer in the Rye City School District. Petitioners Masaki A. Pierce, Henry Fanelli III, Kenneth MacCardle, Marika Del Bello, Christine Parsonson, Jean Piot, Mark Brody, Robert J. Briggs, Ian Wat and Robert L. Truitt III are Rye High School students who took NJROTC courses during the 1997-98 school year and pre-enrolled to continue in the program during the 1998-99 school year. Petitioners Anne Fanelli, Lawrence Del Bello, Sheila Parsonson, Anke MacCardle, William J. Briggs, Delores M. Briggs, Ho Cheong Wat, Robert L. Truitt and Christina Merritt-Piot are parents of student petitioners.

Rye High School has offered NJROTC as an elective since the late 1970s. The program, which is offered pursuant to a contract between the school district and the U.S. Navy, consists of four one-year Naval Science courses and extracurricular activities including drill team, color guard, air-rifle team and academic competition.

In April 1997, respondent board directed respondent Shine to obtain an evaluation of the NJROTC program to help the board decide whether to continue the program. The superintendent selected a private consulting firm, The Reform Group, Inc. ("the Reform Group"), to prepare an evaluation at a cost of $22,000. The consultants conducted research, made on-site visits to NJROTC classes and activities and interviewed students, parents, faculty, administrators and members of the community.

The Reform Group presented its evaluation in writing and orally at respondent board’s January 20, 1998 meeting. Board members raised questions about the report and heard public comment. Board members also discussed the evaluation and entertained public comment at respondent board’s March 3, 1998 meeting. At the board’s March 17 meeting, petitioner Murphy submitted petitions seeking to place a proposition on the ballot at the next district election to continue the NJROTC program unless a majority of the district’s registered voters consented to its elimination.

At its next meeting, held April 7, 1998, respondent board voted not to place the proposal on the ballot. The board concluded that a decision about whether to continue the program "is not within the power of the voters." The board then voted 5-2 to terminate its NJROTC contract with the Navy and eliminate all NJROTC funding from its preliminary budget for the 1998-99 school year. The Navy later agreed to terminate the contract. This appeal ensued. Petitioners’ request for interim relief was denied on May 14, 1998.

Petitioners argue that respondent board’s decision should be reversed because it was arbitrary and capricious. They contend that the board did not give sufficient reasons for its decision, relied on inaccurate information, failed to evaluate the educational merit of the NJROTC curriculum and ignored the needs of NJROTC students. Petitioners also assert that the board acted contrary to the wishes of the community. Petitioners allege that the NJROTC program served a higher percentage of minority students than any other program at Rye High School and argue that the board’s decision to terminate the program is discriminatory and contrary to law.

Respondents argue that petitioner Murphy lacks standing to bring this appeal because he was not directly affected by the decision at issue and that the student petitioners lack standing because they are less than 18 years old. Respondents assert that the board of education has broad discretion to determine the curriculum in its schools and that district voters and community members have no authority to decide what courses will be offered. Respondents also contend that their decision to eliminate the NJROTC program is rational because it was based, among other things, on the academic weakness of the program and the district’s need to allocate resources to meet new State standards. Respondents deny that the decision was in any way related to the race or ethnicity of the NJROTC students.

I will first address a procedural matter. Pursuant to Education Law "310, an individual may not maintain an appeal unless aggrieved in the sense that he or she has suffered personal damage or injury to his or her civil, personal or property rights. Only persons who are directly affected by the action being appealed have standing to bring an appeal (Appeal of Lucente, 39 Ed Dept Rep , Decision No. 14,227; Appeal of Morris, et al., 38 id. 427, Decision No. 14,066). Petitioner Murphy has failed to demonstrate that respondents’ actions caused any legal injury to him personally. Also, a person under the age of 18 is not legally competent to maintain a proceeding pursuant to Education Law "310 (Appeal of Ground, 39 Ed Dept Rep , Decision No. 14,272; Appeal of Reynolds, 37 id. 58, Decision No. 13,803). Accordingly, the student petitioners who are less than 18 years old lack standing to bring this appeal. Because the petitioners who are parents of NJROTC students have standing to proceed with the appeal, and because a decision as to their claims will resolve the issue for all, I need not consider petitioners’ counsels’ request to be substituted as petitioners in place of their sons.

The appeal must be dismissed on the merits. Boards of education have broad authority to prescribe the course of study in the schools of the district (Education Law ""1709[3], 2503[4]; Appeal of Graham, 39 Ed Dept Rep , Decision No. 14,292; Appeal of Smith, 34 id. 346, Decision No. 13,335; Appeal of Keen, 32 id. 299, Decision No. 12,836). Curriculum decisions are not to be made by district voters. Indeed, because the Legislature has given boards of education the authority to prescribe the curriculum in their schools, it is inappropriate to put a proposition before the voters that would override or limit the board’s authority, as petitioner Murphy sought to do here (Appeal of Lombardo, 38 Ed Dept Rep 676, Decision No. 14,115).

The United States Supreme Court has confirmed that school authorities enjoy broad discretion in regulating matters of curriculum (Bd. of Educ., Island Trees U.F.S.D. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 US 853, 869). I will not substitute my judgment for that of a board on curriculum issues absent evidence that the board has acted in an arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner (Appeal of Smith, supra; Appeal of Keen, supra). I can make no such finding on the record before me.

Respondents made a reasoned examination of the NJROTC program. They obtained and reviewed the evaluation prepared by The Reform Group, which addressed both hard data regarding student involvement in the program and the emotional value placed on it by various parties. The board analyzed the cost of the program, the participation rate and the benefits it afforded. It also took note of the fact that many NJROTC students were referred for academic intervention services.

Although it was not required to do so, the board considered public comment on the program at several meetings. Contrary to petitioners’ assertions, the record demonstrates that the decision to eliminate the NJROTC program was made after careful consideration of many competing factors. The fact that the board’s meeting minutes do not include board members’ individual statements of the reasons for their votes does not render the decision arbitrary. The record also does not support petitioners’ claims that the decision to discontinue NJROTC was based on the race of participating students or was otherwise contrary to law.

I recognize that NJROTC provided valuable experience to many participating students and that petitioners’ disagreement with the decision to end it is strong and sincere. That is not, however, a basis upon which I can reverse respondent board’s decision.