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Archer v. York City School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 28, 2016

DAVID L. ARCHER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
YORK CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          HON. JOHN E. JONES, III J.

         Plaintiffs are students and parents of students formerly enrolled at New Hope Academy Charter School (“New Hope”). Defendants are the York City School District (“the District” or “the City School”), five members of the Board of Directors for the School District of the City of York (“the Board”), and certain administrative personnel presently and formerly employed by the District (“the Administration Defendants”), including Eric B. Holmes, the current Superintendent of the District; Deborah Wortham, the former Superintendent; Mindy Wantz, the District Secretary and Right to Know Officer; and Valerie Perry-Cross, the former Assistant Superintendent for Pupil and Personnel Services.

         Plaintiffs commenced this action, asserting various legal claims in protest of the Board's decision not to renew New Hope's charter. Presently pending before this Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 129). For the reasons set forth below, we shall grant Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment in full.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. The York City School District

         New Hope was a charter school located in the city of York, Pennsylvania, within the jurisdiction of the York City School District. Children within the York City School District suffer disproportionate financial disadvantage when compared to the rest of York County, with about 81.3% of students identified as economically disadvantaged by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (“PSSA”). (Doc. 69, ¶ 66). Students within the District boundaries largely do not meet state academic standards, and test scores have fallen over time. (Id. ¶¶ 67-69).[1] From 2009 to 2011, 263 students dropped out of York City schools. (Id. ¶ 70).

         With the City School in marked decline, more and more students were choosing charter schools instead of public schools. (Id. ¶ 72). In the 2012-13 academic year, there were 7, 658 students enrolled within the District, with 62.7% of those students attending York City schools and 31.8% attending charter or nonpublic schools. (Id. ¶ 65). According to Plaintiffs, the City School District has recognized that continued tuition payments to charter schools will cast the District into dire financial straits. (Id. ¶ 73).

         In December 2012, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania declared the York City School District to be financially distressed. (Id. ¶¶ 116, 118). Some District officials publicly attributed the financial drain on the District to charter schools. For instance, at ¶ 2011 school board meeting, one official urged that the District must “go to war” with charter schools, remarking that “[w]e have to build our campaign [against] charter schools.” (Id. ¶ 181). Also in 2011, the then-president of the Board of School Directors expressed that “one of the reasons why this budget is so out of whack is the loss of our students [to charter schools].” (Id. ¶ 180). Also, on November 14, 2013, a District representative commented that, “if New Hope were to remain open indefinitely, it could adversely affect the district's financial recovery plan . . . .” (Id. ¶ 185 (emphasis omitted)).

         On December 12, 2012, Chief Recovery Officer David G. Meckley was appointed to develop a Financial Recovery Plan for the District. (Id. ¶¶ 117-18). Meckley issued his report on May 15, 2013, revealing that in 2011-2012, the District's tuition payments to charter schools totaled $24.8 million. (Id. ¶¶ 119, 122). In 2012-2013, 25.1% of the District's budget was allocated for charter school educational costs. (Id. ¶ 123). Meckley's report concluded that the District must reduce or reverse payments to charter schools to avoid financial ruin, estimating that, if the District continued on the same course, it would have an annual $17 million deficit and debt exceeding $55 million by 2018. (Id. ¶¶ 124-26).

         B. New Hope Academy Charter School

         New Hope's charter was first approved on March 12, 2007, with an effective date of July 1, 2007. (Id. ¶ 81).[2] The charter provided that for its “measurable academic goals and objectives, ” New Hope was to strive to ensure that “[t]he student will meet the proficient level in language arts and mathematics.” New Hope Acad. Charter Sch. v. Sch. Dist. of the City of York, 89 A.2d 731, 733 (Pa. Commw.Ct. 2014) (citing New Hope Charter and Charter Application at 15). “New Hope's charter also provided that achievement of its goals and objectives would be measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), stating that ‘scores from PSSA will be used to measure the student progress in regards to the State Standards.'” Id.[3]

         New Hope began by serving grades 7 and 8. By the time of its dissolution in June 2014, New Hope had incrementally expanded to serve grades 5 through 12 and enrolled approximately 800 students. (Doc. 69, ¶¶ 77, 81, 89). Throughout New Hope's growth, marked by various successful applications to amend its charter to add new grade levels and programming, the District never expressed any concerns to New Hope regarding New Hope's administration or academics. (Id. ¶¶ 84, 86, 88, 90, 92). In fact, during a site visit on May 22, 2012, then-Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq praised New Hope for its exceptional facilities and stewardship of public monies. (Id. ¶¶ 93-95). Defendants emphasize, however, that in approving the amendments to New Hope's charter, the District “did not conduct a comprehensive review of New Hope's operations.” (Doc. 130, ¶ 22).[4]

         In Plaintiffs' view, charter schools have provided hope to parents whose children previously have had to attend the failing City School and who cannot afford to relocate or send their children to private school. (Doc. 69, ¶¶ 139-41). For example, Plaintiffs submit that New Hope's graduation rate for 12th grade students was consistently at or above 91%, compared to the City School's graduation rate of 74%. (Id. ¶¶ 99, 142). A number of New Hope seniors were granted full scholarships at state universities based on their class rank, and New Hope graduates were awarded over $1 million annually in merit scholarships. (Id. ¶¶ 144-45). Plaintiffs also feel that New Hope was safer than the City Schools. (Id. ¶ 146).

         Defendants generally disagree with this characterization of New Hope. They stress that New Hope's students' “PSSA scores”[5] were “generally lower” than the scores of students who attended the District's schools. (Doc. 130, ¶ 40). New Hope also failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (“AYP”) during any of the academic years that New Hope operated. AYP represents a measurement of student progress established by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. (Doc. 130, ¶ 46). It measures schools by the scores their students achieve on the PSSA but also provides “safe harbor and growth methods based on reductions in the percentage of non-proficient students and improvements on scores toward proficiency.” New Hope, 89 A.2d at 734. Unlike New Hope, some District schools have sporadically achieved AYP at different times throughout their operation. However, Plaintiffs stress that not a single school within the York City School District has ever met the AYP minimum performance standards. (Doc. 134, ¶¶ 44-46).[6]

         In fall 2011, New Hope hired an education consultant, Dr. Michael Clemens. New Hope, 89 A.2d at 734. Dr. Clemens was retained to help New Hope improve its academic performance. Id. He concluded that New Hope “was weak in the areas of ‘curriculum, instruction, and assessments aligned with state standards, ' ‘the frequent monitoring of learning and teaching, ' ‘and ‘focused professional development.'” Id. (quoting Board Opinion at 29; School Board C.R. February 29, 2012 H.T. at 86-87, R.R. at 298a-299a). Ultimately, Dr. Clemens determined that New Hope's curriculum was “not aligned with Pennsylvania state academic standards as required by 22Pa. Code Chapter 4.” Id.; (doc. 130-29, p. 5).

         C. Nonrenewal and the Administrative and Judicial Process

         In 2011, New Hope applied for the renewal of its charter. (Doc. 130, ¶ 37; doc 134, ¶ 37). On January 30, 2012, the New Hope Board of Trustees received notice that the school's request to renew its charter had been denied and that nonrenewal proceedings would commence. (Doc. 69, ¶ 97; Doc. 73-1, p. 1). The notice included a list of “Preliminary Reasons For Non-Renewal of Charter” which Plaintiffs characterize as “vague and ambiguous, ” stating that it did not provide the details necessary for Plaintiffs to participate in the District's adjudication. (Doc. 134, ¶ 51; doc. 69, 160). According to Defendant School Board President Margie Orr, the Administration initiated the nonrenewal process and not the Board. (Doc. 69, ¶ 151)[7]

         It is Plaintiffs' belief that prior to sending the notification, individual Defendants had already determined not to renew New Hope's charter, and, as such, the non-renewal proceedings that followed were a sham. (Id. ¶ 100). Plaintiffs centrally highlight that, prior to the initiation of nonrenewal proceedings, then-Superintendent Wortham directed that the administration form a committee to create a “Checklist of Possible Reasons for Charter Denial” to effectuate the closure of New Hope. (Id. ¶ 105). Defendants agree that Superintendent Wortham requested that members of the Administration conduct a “second review” of New Hope's renewal application. (Doc. 130, ¶ 48). Former Assistant Superintendent Perry-Cross chaired the committee. (Id. ¶ 49; doc. 69, ¶ 106). Defendant Miller, a School Board member, attended the meetings but never disclosed his participation. (Doc. 69, ¶ 109).

         On January 9, 2012, Perry-Cross sent an email with the subject “Checklist of Possible Reasons for Charter Denial.” (Doc. 69, ¶ 111). The committee met secretly, did not publicize its findings, and never provided New Hope with its checklist. (Id. ¶¶ 107-08, 112). Defendants, however, argue that the meeting was not “secret”-rather Defendants were under no obligation to inform New Hope of the Administration's meetings or their purpose. (Doc. 135, p. 8). Only meetings of the Board and those conducted pursuant to New Hope's non-renewal hearings and proceedings are subject to the Sunshine Act. (Id.).

         As asserted in their Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that the District, including the Board and administration, retained Levin Legal Group for the purpose of forming a committee to shut New Hope down. (Doc. 69, ¶ 130). To this end, Plaintiffs allege Attorney Allison Petersen met in private with the Board and administration, advising that they must carry out nonrenewal proceedings as a formality. (Id. ¶ 133). Defendants entirely disagree with Plaintiffs' characterization of events, and instead allege that the Levin Legal Group was hired to assist the District with charter school issues generally, including the evaluation of several applications for the creation and establishment of new charter schools. Defendants aver that Attorney Petersen advised the Board that she could not discuss the New Hope nonrenewal proceedings with them until after they voted on the matter. (Doc. 130, ¶¶ 52-54).

         On February 16, 2012, the District issued an Amended Nonrenewal Notice with the following charges: violation of the school's charter because of failure of students to meet minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics; violation of the school's charter by accepting students beyond the first 10 days of each quarter; failure to meet the requirements for student performance as set forth in the Pennsylvania Administrative Code; violation of No Child Left Behind by failing to make annual yearly progress, or AYP; noncompliance with attendance reporting requirements; violation of Pennsylvania law or administrative guidance related to placement of students at alternative education facilities, specifically Challenge Academy; and violations of the Pennsylvania Non-Profit Corporation Act and the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act with respect to the role and actions of Isiah Anderson, the school's founder, as related to the for-profit entities owned or controlled by him, including Challenge Academy. (Doc. 73-1, pp. 1-3).

         Plaintiffs express that many of the stated allegations existed at the time the District granted amendments to New Hope's charter but were never raised; that none of the concerns have any substantive merit; and that all of the allegations were contrived as a predetermined excuse to dissolve New Hope's charter. (Doc. 69, ¶¶ 172-74).

         Following the issuance of the Amended Nonrenewal Notice, nonrenewal proceedings were held over seven evenings in February and March 2012. (Doc. 130, ¶ 55; doc. 134, ¶ 55). At the school board meeting of July 18, 2012, the Board resolved not to renew New Hope's charter by a vote of 5-0. (Doc. 73-1, p. 5). The Board issued a 77-page Adjudication on August 15, 2012, including findings of fact and conclusions of law, in support of its decision. (Id. at pp. 1-77).

         New Hope appealed the Board's decision, and, on October 29, 2013, the Pennsylvania State Charter School Appeal Board (“CAB”) issued a 51-page Opinion finding that the nonrenewal of New Hope's charter was proper. (Doc. 73-2). The accompanying Order specified that the decision upholding nonrenewal would become effective on January 15, 2014, to allow New Hope students to complete the fall term of the 2013-2014 academic year. (Id. at p. 52). In the Opinion, the CAB specifically determined that New Hope had received adequate notice of the grounds for nonrenewal. (Id. at pp. 20-22). It explained that the Pennsylvania Charter School Law requires that a charter school be apprised of the reasons for nonrenewal “with reasonable specificity, ” 24 P.S. § 17-1729-A(c), and, here, determined that the grounds stated in the Amended Nonrenewal Notice complied with that directive. (Doc. 73-2, p. 20). The CAB further expressed that “[i]t is clear from the record that New Hope received both adequate notice of the grounds on which the School Board based its decision and the opportunity to present witnesses and evidence on each of those issues” and found that “New Hope's due process rights were not violated.” (Id. at p. 22).

         In terms of the substantive grounds underlying the nonrenewal decision, the CAB found, among other things, that New Hope: (1) failed to meet student performance requirements set forth in the Pennsylvania Administrative Code and the school's written charter; (2) materially violated the terms of its charter by failing to meet academic standards and neglecting to follow admission/enrollment policies provided therein; (3) violated laws governing enrollment procedures, the placement of students in Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth (“AEDY”) programs, and truancy and student attendance reporting; and (4) along with its related entities/officials, contravened the Ethics Act by failing to file Statements of Financial Interest and engaging in conduct which constituted a conflict of interest. (Id. at pp. 14-16; 25-51).

         Thereafter, New Hope filed an Application for Stay, and the CAB issued an order on November 21, 2013, granting a stay until June 4, 2014, which allowed New Hope students to complete the 2013-14 academic year. (Doc. 73-3). On November 26, 2013, New Hope filed a Petition for Review of the CAB's decision in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court issued a decision on the merits on April 8, 2014, affirming the CAB's ruling. See New Hope Acad. Charter Sch. v. Sch. Dist. of City of York, 89 A.3d 731 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2014).

         New Hope was forced to dissolve in June 2014.[8]

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiffs filed a Complaint on November 19, 2013 (Doc. 1), centrally contending that the rationales asserted by the Board for the nonrenewal of New Hope's charter were pretextual and that finances were the true motivator for the school's closure. (Id. ¶¶ 74-75). Plaintiffs advanced claims based on the Procedural Due Process, Substantive Due Process, and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment; conspiracy; the Due Process Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution; and Article I § 26 of the state charter.

         Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 17), and we issued a Memorandum and Order on February 27, 2014, granting the motion. (Doc. 27). We dismissed with prejudice Plaintiffs' federal and state law claims based on procedural and substantive due process, because Plaintiffs failed to allege a deprivation of a protected interest. (Id. pp. 19-21, 32-33). However, we permitted Plaintiffs to amend their pleading to reassert their equal protection and conspiracy claims. (Id. at p. 35).

         Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on March 19, 2014 (Doc. 31), and Defendants against moved to dismiss the pleading. (Doc. 35). The parties fully briefed the motion, but before a decision could be rendered, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint on June 2, 2014, including a proposed amended pleading. (Docs. 43, 43-4). The appended proposed pleading added, among other things, new defendants (the Administration Defendants) and a new legal claim (fraud). We granted leave to amend on September 10, 2014 (Doc. 67), but ordered Plaintiffs to revise their proposed amended pleading before submitting it. We noted that the amended complaint, as drafted, spanned 430 numbered paragraphs and 84 pages, and we directed Plaintiffs to “pare down their pleading to encompass a ‘short and plain statement' showing their entitlement to relief.” (Id. at p. 9 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2))).

         After making revisions, Plaintiffs filed the operative Second Amended Complaint on October 14, 2014. (Doc. 69). Relevantly, the amended pleading added the four Administration Defendants and a claim for fraud (Count IV), as well as new and expanded factual allegations. Plaintiffs also reasserted their claims under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count I); for conspiracy in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count II); and pursuant to Article I § 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution (Count III).

         Defendants filed another Motion to Dismiss on October 28, 2014. (Doc. 73). In the course of briefing, the parties agreed to the dismissal of Plaintiffs' fraud claim. We ruled on the remainder of the pending issues, denying Defendants' Motion with regard to Plaintiffs' equal protection claim, conspiracy claim, and Pennsylvania constitutional claim. (Doc. 85). We also declined to dismiss the new Defendants added pursuant to Plaintiffs' operative Second Amended Complaint. We granted Defendants' Motion insofar as it related to Plaintiffs' request for compensatory damages under the Pennsylvania Constitution and punitive damages against Defendants in their official capacities.

         On March 18, 2015, Defendants filed an Answer to Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint. (Doc. 90). Several discovery disputes subsequently ensued and were summarily resolved, and the Court twice granted Defendants' Motions for Sanctions to dismiss nonresponsive Plaintiffs from the case. (Docs. 96, ...


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