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Decision No. 15,341

Appeal of MARY ELLEN CLARK from action of the Board of Education of the Bethlehem Central School District and Leslie Loomis, Superintendent, regarding trip expenditures.

Decision No. 15341

(January 19, 2006)

Girvin & Ferlazzo, P.C., attorneys for respondents, Kristine Amodeo Lanchantin, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals certain actions of the Board of Education of the Bethlehem Central School District ("respondent board") and its superintendent, Dr. Leslie Loomis ("superintendent"), related to field trips. The appeal must be dismissed.

At its September 24, 2003 meeting, respondent board unanimously approved two field trips for October 2003. The first, Nature's Classroom, was a four-day field trip to Becket, Massachusetts for all fifth graders and four teachers. The second, Natural Helpers, was an overnight retreat to the Adirondack Center in St. Johnsville, New York for 25 students and 4 teachers. This appeal ensued.

Petitioner, a district resident, alleges that tax monies and extra classroom activity funds, solicited from students and parents, were used to pay for student and teacher/chaperone participation in the field trips. She also claims that taxpayer funds were used to pay the salaries of employees while they attend Nature's Classroom, as well as the salaries of bus drivers and fuel expenses. Petitioner asserts that the trips amount to "nothing more than . . . private pleasure excursion[s]." She maintains that if the trips were truly part of the curriculum, the students would not be asked to pay. Petitioner also alleges that the district's use of extra classroom activity funds is prohibited by �170.2 of the Commissioner's regulations. Petitioner additionally complains that respondents' practice of using student funds to pay for teachers to attend Nature's Classroom is a conflict of interest. Petitioner requests an order prohibiting respondents from using public monies to subsidize "private recreational trips."

Respondents argue that the field trips are part of the school's educational programs and that they meet the criteria set forth in Appeal of Christe (39 Ed Dept Rep 685, Decision No. 14,349). Respondents maintain that no student was excluded from the field trips due to an inability to pay. Respondents also assert that the petition is untimely and moot.

The appeal is moot because the field trips have occurred. The Commissioner will only decide matters in actual controversy and will not render a decision on a state of facts which no longer exist or which subsequent events have laid to rest (Appeal of B.K. and R.K., 44 Ed Dept Rep 195, Decision No. 15,146; Appeal of V.L., 44 id. 160, Decision No. 15,132; Appeal of Garvin, 44 id. 30, Decision No. 15,087). I, therefore, dismiss the appeal as moot.

Even if the appeal were not dismissed on procedural grounds, it would be dismissed on the merits. In an appeal to the Commissioner, a petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief (8 NYCRR �275.10; Appeal of Romeo, 44 Ed Dept Rep 149, Decision No. 15,128; Appeal of Patton, et al., 42 id. 226, Decision No. 14,832; Appeal of Pope, 40 id. 473, Decision No. 14,530). On the record before me, I find petitioner has failed to meet this burden.

Public school districts have authority to include field trips as part of the district's educational curriculum ( see Education Law ��1709[3] and [33], 1804 and 2023[1]; Cook v. Griffin, 47 AD2d 23, 28; Appeals of Giardina and Carbone, 43 Ed Dept Rep 395, Decision No. 15,030; Appeal of Christe, 39 id. 685, Decision No. 14,349). In Appeal of Christe (39 Ed Dept Rep 685, Decision No. 14,349), the Commissioner articulated criteria to be considered in determining whether a particular trip should be considered a private activity or part of the educational program. They include whether the board has input into the content or planning of the trip, the educational objectives of the trip, its relation to the classroom curriculum, whether the trip is an approved part of the educational program of the school, whether it occurs during the regular school day and year, whether it is recognized as appropriate for academic credit, whether it is subject to district's code of conduct, and whether it is open to all students with a legitimate interest in the subject area.

Respondents argue that the trips meet the Christe criteria. Specifically, respondents allege, and petitioner does not deny, that the trips were subject to the district's rules of student conduct, that the proposals addressed content, educational objectives and curriculum utilization, that the trips were a part of the schools' educational programs, that the trips occurred during the regular school day during the school year (except that the Natural Helpers trip ended on a Saturday) and that the trips were open to all students in the involved classes.

Based on the Christie criteria and the record before me, I cannot conclude that petitioner has met her burden of proving that trips were not part of the educational program. I therefore cannot conclude that respondent board did not act within its authority when it approved the field trips.

Petitioner also asserts that respondents improperly used public moneys to pay for chaperones and bus drivers. Article VIII, �1 of the State Constitution prohibits school districts from making gifts or loans of money or property to or in aid of any individual, or private corporation, association or undertaking. This section generally prohibits the expenditure of school district moneys for the benefit of private parties unless it is in furtherance of a proper public purpose and is undertaken pursuant to a statutory obligation or properly authorized contract under which the municipality receives fair and adequate consideration (seeAntonopoulou v. Beame, 32 NY2d 126; 1989 Opn. State Compt. No. 89-50). However, where the expenditure primarily furthers a proper public purpose and only incidentally benefits an individual, the incidental private benefit will not invalidate the action (Waldo's, Inc. v. Village of Johnson City, 74 NY2d 718; Murphy v. Erie County, 28 id. 80; Opn. State Compt. No. 92-5). Here, the record indicates that the chaperones were parents and teachers and that no chaperone or bus driver received any payment for services rendered, other than regular pay and meals. Therefore, any incidental benefit to the chaperones or bus drivers does not negate the public purpose of providing the educational program approved by respondent board (seeAppeals of Giardina and Carbone, 43 Ed Dept Rep 395, Decision No. 15,030).

Petitioner further contends that the district's use of extra classroom activity funds for the trips is prohibited by �170.2 of the Commissioner's regulations. However, that section makes no reference to such funds.

Finally, petitioner contends that paying teachers while they attend these trips is a conflict of interest and cites Opinion of the State Comptroller 95-10. That opinion is not persuasive authority because it interprets Town Law as it relates to cemeteries, therefore, petitioner has failed to carry her burden.

In light of this determination, I need not address petitioner's remaining contentions.

I have considered petitioner's remaining contentions and find them without merit.