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Decision No. 14,534

Appeal of FINCH, PRUYN & COMPANY, INC., from action of the Board of Education of the Newcomb Central School District regarding a special district meeting.

Decision No. 14,534

(January 30, 2001)

McPhillips, Fitzgerald & Cullum, LLP, attorneys for petitioner, Dennis Phillips, Esq., of counsel

Bartlett, Pontiff, Stewart & Rhodes, P.C., attorneys for respondent, Paula Nadeau Berube, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner challenges various actions taken by the Board of Education of the Newcomb Central School District ("respondent") in connection with a special district meeting held on January 11, 2000. The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioner owns approximately 53,000 acres of land within the Newcomb Central School District and the Town of Newcomb. The town has adopted the provisions of Article 19 of the Real Property Tax Law, which provides for the classification of property as "homestead" and "non-homestead." Petitioner’s holdings are non-homestead property.

On October 12, 1999, respondent approved a resolution establishing January 11, 2000, as the date for a special district meeting to permit district residents to vote on a proposed capital project. The proposal called for the expenditure of $3,340,000 to reconstruct the Central School building gymnasium and locker areas, construct a swimming pool and install an elevator. Respondent later published a Notice of Special Meeting, which stated that the board would propose, among other things, to "construct additions to and to reconstruct the Newcomb Central School Building, including site work and the acquisition of original furnishing, equipment, machinery or apparatus required for the purpose for which such building is to be used, at a maximum cost of $3,340,000."

Between October 26, 1999 and January 4, 2000, respondent conducted six public meetings to present information about the proposed capital project. Respondent also distributed bulletins containing project information in two mailings to all Town of Newcomb residents. District voters approved the proposed capital project at the January 11, 2000 special meeting. This appeal ensued.

Petitioner argues that respondent abused its discretion when it adopted the October 12, 1999 resolution that called the January 11, 2000 special meeting. Petitioner contends that there was no rational basis for the resolution because the project, and in particular the swimming pool, is a luxury and not a "bona fide school district purpose or necessity." Petitioner asserts that the expense of the swimming pool is unwarranted in light of the small number of district students and the declining population of the district. Petitioner also claims that respondent abused its discretion in adopting the resolution because it based its decision on community needs rather than educational needs and school district purposes, thereby usurping the role of the town government. Petitioner asserts that as a non-homestead taxpayer, it will pay a larger share of the project’s cost than other taxpayers. Finally, petitioner contends that the Notice of Special Meeting is invalid because it referred to reconstruction and additions but did not specifically mention the swimming pool and therefore did not properly disclose the nature of the project.

Respondent asserts that petitioner lacks standing, that the petition is untimely and that petitioner seeks tax relief that is beyond the authority of the Commissioner. Respondent also argues that petitioner’s dissatisfaction with its tax liability does not constitute a legal basis for invalidating the referendum. Respondent further contends that it proposed construction of a swimming pool in order to make swimming part of the physical education curriculum and establish competitive swim teams. In addition, respondent notes, it recognized that the community could also use and benefit from the pool. Respondent denies that the Notice of Special Meeting was inadequate and points out that detailed information about the project, including the swimming pool, was presented to district residents in mailings and at public meetings.

I will first address the procedural issue of standing. As previous Commissioner’s decisions have recognized, a party may not maintain an appeal pursuant to Education Law "310 unless that party is aggrieved in the sense that it has suffered damage or injury to its civil, personal or property rights (Appeal of Allen and Wong, 40 Ed Dept Rep __, Decision No. 14,501; Appeal of Murphy, 39 id. 562, Decision No. 14,311.) It is not disputed that petitioner will bear the bulk of the tax burden resulting from the proposed construction. Accordingly, I find that petitioner has standing to challenge respondent’s actions concerning the referendum.

On May 18, 2000, petitioner sought to amend its petition to add a claim that respondent’s actions amounted to an unconstitutional application of Real Property Tax Law Article 19. This request, however, must be denied. An appeal to the Commissioner of Education must be brought within 30 days from the making of the decision or the performance of the act complained of, except for good cause shown in the petition (8 NYCRR "275.16). Petitioner may not belatedly add new claims that could have been raised in the petition by seeking to amend it after the 30-day period has expired.

With respect to appeals involving school district elections, I have held that it would be unreasonable and detrimental to the efficient resolution of a petitioner’s claims to require that petitioner to institute separate appeals with respect to acts comprising a series of events closely related to an election, in order to meet the 30- day requirement set forth in "275.16. In such circumstances, even though the appeal involves acts occurring more than 30 days from the date the appeal was commenced, I have declined to dismiss the appeal as untimely provided that the appeal was commenced within 30 days of the election (Appeal of Schadtle and Wilcox, 38 Ed Dept Rep 599, Decision No. 14,102). Thus, petitioner’s claims challenging respondent’s October 12, 1999, resolution and the Notice of Special Meeting are timely because they were raised within 30 days of the date of the election.

Petitioner’s claim that the October 12, 1999, resolution is invalid must be dismissed on the merits. Boards of education have broad authority, subject to voter approval, to arrange for the construction of and additions to school buildings (Education Law ""416(1); 1709[6]). Respondent states that it sought to add a swimming pool to the Central School in order to make swimming part of the physical education curriculum and establish competitive swim teams. These are valid school district purposes. Thus, the record does not support petitioner’s contention that respondent abused its discretion when it approved the October 12, 1999, resolution.

Petitioner’s claim that the Notice of Special Meeting was defective must also be dismissed on the merits. The notice in question stated the total cost of the proposed project and identified its purpose as the reconstruction and construction of additions to the district’s school building and the acquisition of furnishings, equipment, machinery and apparatus for use in such building. I will not invalidate an election unless the information presented to the voters was misleading and is proven by petitioner to have affected the outcome of the vote (Appeal of Brousseau, 39 Ed Dept Rep 397, Decision No. 14,271; Appeal of Leman, 38 id. 683, Decision No. 14,117; Appeal of Lombardo, 38 id. 680, Decision No. 14,116). The record reflects that prior to the special district meeting respondent distributed bulletins to district residents that described the components of the project and conducted a series of public meetings to explain the proposal. In view of the foregoing, I cannot conclude that district voters were presented with misleading information regarding the proposed project. Moreover, in an appeal to the Commissioner, petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief (8 NYCRR "275.10; Appeal of Morris, et al., 38 Ed Dept Rep 427, Decision No. 14,066; Appeal of Acme Bus Corporation, 37 id. 219, Decision No. 13,848; Appeal of McDougald, 34 id. 424, Decision No. 13,368). Petitioner fails to present any evidence that the allegedly defective notice affected the outcome of the vote or that respondent willfully and fraudulently failed to specifically identify the swimming pool as part of the proposed project in the notice.

Consequently, there is no basis on which to overturn the results of the election.