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Decision No. 16,019

Appeal of BLASIA BAUM from action of the Board of Education of the Lawrence Union Free School District regarding adoption of budget goals and a school closing.

Decision No. 16,019

(February 6, 2010)

Minerva & D’Agostino, P.C., attorneys for respondent, Roslyn Z. Roth, Esq., of counsel

STEINER, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals the adoption of budget goals by the Board of Education of the Lawrence Union Free School District (“respondent”).  The appeal must be dismissed.

Petitioner is a district resident whose three children attend respondent’s schools. On or about December 16, 2008, respondent adopted the “Lawrence Public Schools Budget Goals 2009-2010” (“budget goals”), which include closing an elementary school and relocating all fifth-grade students to respondent’s middle school.  This appeal ensued.

Respondent adopted five budget goals as follows:

  1. Manage and control expenses in the operating budget to ensure an end of the year surplus of not less than $5 million.
  2. Construct the 2009-2010 Budget that is lower than the current operating budget, without diminishing essential instructional services to students.
  3. Relocate all 5th graders to the middle school; close one of the four elementary schools; and house all Pre-Kindergarten through 4th graders in the three remaining elementary buildings.
  4. Continue to proceed with the $17 million of capital projects approved by the voters.
  5. Ensure no more than a 2% increase in the Tax Levy.

Petitioner claims that the budget goals violate sound educational policy and are arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of respondent’s discretion.  She argues that the goals are not based on “any meaningful cost analysis or educational impact study.”  Petitioner also alleges that budget goal 3 “has been implemented without proper study or a resolution” and asks that the State Education Department (“Department”) “monitor the consolidation to assure the safety and well-being of our children.”  Petitioner requests that I “overturn” the budget goals and award her costs for bringing this appeal.

Respondent argues, interalia, that petitioner’s claims are premature and that its adoption of the budget goals was rational and within its discretion.

An individual may not maintain an appeal pursuant to Education Law §310 unless aggrieved in the sense that he or she has suffered personal damage or injury to his or her civil, personal or property rights (Appeal of Jefferson, 46 Ed Dept Rep 487, Decision No. 15,572; Appeal of Himmelberg and Little, 46 id. 228, Decision No. 15,490; Appeal of Riccinto, 46 id. 39, Decision No. 15,435).  Only persons who are directly affected by the action being appealed have standing to bring an appeal (Appeal of Jefferson, 46 Ed Dept Rep 487, Decision No. 15,572; Appeal of L.A., et al., 46 id. 450, Decision No. 15,561). District residents have standing to challenge an allegedly illegal expenditure of district funds (Appeal of Samuel, 45 Ed Dept Rep 418, Decision No. 15,371; Appeal of Sweeney, 44 id. 176, Decision No. 15,139; Appeal of Allard, 43 id. 167, Decision No. 14,957).

Budget goals 1, 2, 4 and 5 appear to be aspirational statements intended to guide the development of the district’s 2009-2010 budget.  For example, the goals state that the district is “committed to” managing and controlling the district’s budget, spending and tax levy as well as proceeding with certain capital projects already approved by the voters.  Indeed, in its verified answer, respondent asserts that the budget goals were developed “in support of [respondent’s] commitment to transparency in the planning and preparation of the budget.”  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 Brown, 46 Ed Dept Rep 584, Decision No. 15,602; Appeals of Hubbard, 46 id. 533, Decision No. 15,585; Appeal of Darrow, 46 id. 182, Decision No. 15,477).  While petitioner makes conclusory allegations that adoption of the budget goals “will hurt the District’s minority residents disproportionately” and “will not benefit” the majority of families who send their children to public schools, she has not alleged that she has personally suffered any injury or has been directly affected by the adoption of budget goals 1, 2, 4 and 5.  As a result, I find that petitioner lacks standing to challenge respondent’s adoption of those goals.

However, respondent admits that budget goal 3 represents its decision to relocate the district’s fifth-grade students to its middle school and close one elementary school.  As a result, I find that petitioner, as the parent of a student in the fourth grade in the 2009-2010 school year who would be directly affected by the fifth-grade relocation, has standing to challenge the adoption of budget goal 3.

Nevertheless, petitioner’s challenge to budget goal 3 must be dismissed on the merits.  Decisions about school district reorganization and the closing of school buildings are within the discretion of a board of education and will not be set aside unless they are shown to lack a rational basis (Appeal of Hamblin, et al., 48 Ed Dept Rep 421, Decision No. 15,902; Appeal of Wong, et al., 42 id. 269, Decision No. 14,850; Appeals of Patashnick and Waters, 39 id. 236, Decision No. 14,225).  Pursuant to Education Law §1709(3) and (33), a board of education of a union free school district has the authority and responsibility to manage and administer the affairs of the school district, including the assignment of pupils to schools therein.  In such cases, a board’s discretion is broad (Matter of Older, et al. v. Bd. of Educ.of Union Free School Dist. No. 1., Town of Mamaroneck, 27 NY2d 333; Appeal of Hamblin, et al., 48 Ed Dept Rep 421, Decision No. 15,902; Appeal of Wong, et al., 42 id. 269, Decision No. 14,850).  Accordingly, a board’s decision to reorganize its schools will not be overturned unless it is arbitrary, capricious or contrary to sound educational policy (Appeal of Hamblin, et al., 48 Ed Dept Rep 421, Decision No. 15,902; Appeal of Wong, et al., 42 id. 269, Decision No. 14,850; Appeals of Patashnick and Waters, 39 id. 236, Decision No. 14,225).

Petitioner claims that respondent’s decision to relocate fifth-grade students and close an elementary school was made without adequate consideration of several factors, including:  accessibility for students with disabilities; the district’s capacity to maintain adequate physical education, library and cafeteria facilities; transportation and student safety.  Petitioner also contends that respondent’s decision is contrary to the findings of a demographic study (“the study”) presented to the district in 2007.  Specifically, petitioner cites a portion of the study that states that “with significant remodeling there would be classroom space [in the middle school building] for an additional 160 to 200 students.”  Petitioner alleges that, according to the district’s enrollment data, there are more than 200 students enrolled in the each of the district’s current second through fifth grades.

Contrary to petitioner’s allegations, respondent has submitted an affidavit from its superintendent explaining that respondent considered several factors in making its decision, including projected enrollments, class size caps, school capacities, accessibility, classroom lavatories and program accommodations.  The record also indicates that the superintendent discussed such considerations in a presentation at the board’s November 20, 2008 public meeting.  According to the superintendent, the study showed that the district’s “public school population is shrinking, there is a significant underutilization of the existing school building space and that the elementary consolidation would result in a student population that is well within the capacity of the remaining schools.”  The superintendent also states that the decision “was made after careful consideration and study that shows a substantial cost savings can be achieved without negatively impacting the quality of its educational program.”  Based on the record before me, therefore, I cannot conclude that respondent’s adoption of budget goal 3 was arbitrary or capricious.

Finally, petitioner’s request for reimbursement of the costs of bringing this appeal must be denied.  The Commissioner has no authority to award monetary damages, costs or reimbursements in an appeal pursuant to Education Law §310 (Appeal of F.P., 46 Ed Dept Rep 134, Decision No. 15,465; Appeal of J.F. and D.F., 45 id. 241, Decision No. 15,310).