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In re Petition to Establish an Independent School District for Property Situate in Jefferson Township
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
August 9, 2013
In Re: Petition to Establish an Independent School District For Property Situate in Jefferson Township, Somerset County, For Purposes of Transfer to an Adjacent School District
Appeal of: Petition to Establish an Independent School District, Independent School District, Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Gary D. Gadley, Matthew Tarosky, William J. Lloyd, James A. Nassif, Robert M. Hernandez, Georgia C. Hernandez, Mary Jo Ochson, David A. Tonnies, Susan A. Jurik, Kurt J. Lesker, III, Michael A. Morris, Erin Morris, Mark J. Hileman, Rebecca Hileman, Annette D. Ganassi, Nancy J. Bonati, Joseph E. Archer, James P. Wilhelm, Paige M. Wilhelm, David P. Mendis, Lisa B. Mendis, David A. Fetchko, Mary Ellen Fetchko, Ross F. DiMarco, Jr., Candace DiMarco, Netco, Inc., Wilson J. Farmerie, Karen A. Farmerie, Virginia's Pheasant Run, LP, Paul V. Cunningham, Deborah A. Cunningham
Argued: June 17, 2013.
BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge. HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.
Petitioners own 22 contiguous parcels of real property in Jefferson Township that are located in the Somerset Area School District. They have filed a petition to establish an independent school district for purposes of transferring their properties to the Rockwood Area School District. The trial court dismissed their petition because it concluded that most of those signing it were not eligible to do so. They all owned property and paid taxes to the Somerset Area School District. However, they were not all legally domiciled at their Jefferson Township properties, and some were corporations, not individuals. Concluding that the trial court erred in concluding that a "taxable inhabitant, " as used in the Public School Code of 1949,  must be a human being who permanently resides in the proposed independent school district to participate in a transfer proceeding, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
We begin our review with the applicable statute for establishing an independent school district, which is the first step in the statutory process for transferring real property from one school district to another. Section 242.1(a)sets forth the procedure for creation of an independent school district and states, in relevant part, as follows:
(a) A majority of the taxable inhabitants of any contiguous territory in any school district or school districts, as herein established, may present their petition to the court of common pleas of the county in which each contiguous territory, or a greater part thereof, is situated, asking that the territory be established as an independent district for the sole purpose of transfer to an adjacent school district contiguous thereto…. Such petitions shall set forth a proper description of the boundaries of the territory to be included in such proposed independent district, and the reasons of the petitioners for requesting such transfer to another school district and the name of the district into which its territory is proposed to be placed.
The court shall hold hearing thereon, of which hearing the school district or districts out of whose territory such proposed independent district is to be taken and the school district into which the territory is proposed to be assigned, shall each have ten days notice.
24 P.S. §2-242.1(a) (emphasis added). At the hearing, the trial court must determine four things:
1. the precise boundaries of the proposed independent school district;
2. that a majority of "taxable inhabitants" in the "contiguous territory" have, in fact, signed the petition;
3 that the petitioners have listed reasons for the transfer; and
4. that the petition names the school district into which the territory is proposed to be transferred.
In Re: Petition for Formation of Independent School District, Appeal of Riegelsville Tax and Education Coalition, 17 A.3d 977, 981 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (Riegelsville).
The trial court's role is strictly a procedural one. It does not inquire into the reasons for the transfer given by the petitioners or rule on their merit. In re Establishment of Independent School District Consisting of the Borough of Wheatland, 846 A.2d 771, 773 n.2 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004) (Borough of Wheatland I). That is the job of the Department of Education. A petition filed under Section 242.1(a) enjoys a rebuttable presumption that the signatures on the petition represent a majority of the taxable inhabitants. Id. at 775. It is the challenger's burden to prove otherwise. This Court has explained that a challenger may satisfy that burden as follows:
(1) proof that the petition lacks the pleading requirements set forth in Section 242.1(a); (2) proof that the signatures on the petition are invalid; (3) proof that signatories on the petition are not taxable inhabitants of the area in question; or (4) proof that there is a lack of a majority of taxable inhabitants on the petition.
Id. (footnote omitted) (emphasis added). Where the challenger meets its burden of proof in one of the above-listed ways, the ...