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Decision No. 14,662

Appeal of ELAINE LAHM, on behalf of her daughter JENNIFER, from action of the Board of Education of the Clarkstown Central School District regarding a required summer reading program.

Decision No. 14,662

(December 5, 2001)

Lexow, Berbit & Associates, P.C., attorneys for respondent, Warren E. Berbit, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the implementation by the Board of Education of the Clarkstown Central School District ("respondent") of a required summer reading program. The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioner"s daughter, Jennifer, attended eighth grade in respondent"s schools during the 2000-01 school year. In or about June 2000, Jennifer was notified that as an incoming eighth grade student enrolled in enriched English (English 8E) she would be required to read three books over the summer, selected from a reading list of approximately 60 books. Students enrolled in regular English (English R) were required to read two books from the same booklist. The notice for the summer reading program advised that "[a]ll students will be responsible for demonstrating understanding of their books during the first two weeks of the school year." By letter dated June 12, 2000, petitioner wrote to the middle school principal, Mr. Gretzinger, requesting a modification of the summer reading program or its discontinuance. On June 14, 2000, petitioner forwarded a copy of this letter to respondent"s superintendent. By letter dated June 15, 2000, Mr. Gretzinger responded to petitioner"s concerns, but refused to modify or cancel the program. By letter dated July 12, 2000, petitioner responded to the June 15 letter. Petitioner also sent a letter to my office outlining her objections to the program.

Apparently, petitioner"s daughter read three books over the summer of 2000, and did the required assignments in September 2000. It also appears that respondent intended to require students to perform summer reading during the summer of 2001. This appeal was commenced on March 8, 2001. The petition included a request for a stay of respondent"s 2001-2002 summer reading program. Petitioner"s request for interim relief was denied on March 28, 2001.

Petitioner contends that respondent"s summer reading program is unfair in a number of respects. She objects to the fact that students are given assignments over the summer. She claims that requiring enriched students to read three books, as opposed to two, is unfair. Petitioner also maintains that the books on the eighth grade list were often unavailable at the local library. Additionally, she asserts that many of the books are inappropriate for the age group, because they contain adult content. Petitioner also requests that respondent"s high school summer reading program be cancelled for similar reasons.

Respondent claims that its policy is reasonable and within its discretion. It contends that the summer reading list is distributed well in advance of the end of the school year. Respondent asserts that students are not required to perform any written work during the summer. Respondent further maintains that students do not begin working on written assignments until school resumes and teachers are available to supervise their work. Respondent also maintains that it coordinates with local libraries to ensure that an adequate supply of books is available for students.

Respondent further maintains that the high school reading lists are extensive, and allow students to read books that are not on the list, thereby eliminating any issue of availability. Additionally, respondent asserts a number of procedural defenses. It claims that the petition is untimely, was unverified as served, and fails to state a claim.

Initially, I will address respondent"s procedural defenses. An appeal to the Commissioner of Education must be initiated within 30 days of the action or decision complained of, unless excused by the Commissioner for good cause shown (8 NYCRR "275.16). Respondent claims that petitioner"s letter of June 12, 2000, sought the discontinuance of the summer reading program, and that this request was denied in the June 15, 2000 letter from Principal Gretzinger. Respondent maintains that the appeal should, therefore, have been initiated within 30 days of the June 15 letter. I note, however, that the appeal now before me seeks the cancellation of the summer reading program for 2001-2002 school year. Petitioner"s previous correspondence related to the 2000 summer reading program. To the extent petitioner appeals respondent"s decision to continue the summer reading program for the 2001-2002 school year, I find the appeal timely.

Respondent further asserts that the petition is not verified as required by 8 NYCRR "275.5 and, therefore, must be dismissed. However, the petition filed with my Office of Counsel contains the required verification. Therefore, dismissal on that basis is unwarranted (Appeal of Wayne, 39 Ed Dept Rep 518, Decision No. 14,298).

With respect to the merits, boards of education have broad authority to prescribe the course of study in the schools of the district (Education Law ""1709[3], 1804[1]; Appeal of Lease, 39 Ed Dept Rep 215, Decision No. 14,219; Appeal of Smith, 34 id. 346, Decision No. 13,335; Appeal of Keen, 32 id. 299, Decision No. 12,836). The 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 of education on curriculum issues absent evidence that the board has acted in an arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner (Appeal ofLease, supra; Appeal of Smith, supra; Appeal of Keen, supra).

Upon review, I find no basis to invalidate respondent"s 2001-2002 summer reading program. Although the record does not contain a copy of the middle school reading list for 2001-2002, the list for the previous summer"s reading program contained some 60 books. It does not appear to be unreasonable to require students to read two or three of the books from this list over a ten-week period. Furthermore, the record contains an explanation from the chairperson of the middle school English department outlining the reasons for the selections on the middle school reading list. Likewise, the list contains a brief explanation of the substance of each book as well as guidance references designed to assist students" parents in the selection of books to be read. Moreover, there does not appear to be an issue of limited book selection for high school students since the 2001-2002 reading lists are extensive and students may select books not listed.

Petitioner also alleges difficulties in obtaining books on the middle school reading list from the local library. If books are to be used as part of a mandatory assignment, respondent must ensure that they are reasonably available to all students (Appeal of Lease, supra). There is no evidence in the record to indicate how many eighth grade students are in the district or whether there was an insufficient number of books available to meet the demand. Also, petitioner did not document what efforts she made to find books from the list, or provide any evidence that families were forced to buy books due to their unavailability at the library. Although the middle school list includes a sentence that the books may be purchased (emphasis added), there is no showing that students were required to purchase any books.

Furthermore, unlike the situation in the Appeal of Lease, supra, wherein I found the summer reading program to be problematic, under respondent"s program, written assignments do not appear to be due upon return to school in the fall. As long as class grades reflect work performed under a teacher"s direction and supervision, summer reading assignments are not, in and of themselves, unreasonable. On this record I find no basis to overturn respondent"s summer reading program.