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Washington Township Independent School District v. Pennsylvania State Board of Education

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

January 20, 2017

Washington Township Independent School District, Petitioner
v.
Pennsylvania State Board of Education, Respondent

          Argued: December 14, 2016

          BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge HONORABLE JULIA K. HEARTHWAY, Judge

          OPINION

          BROBSON JUDGE

         The Washington Township Independent School District (WTISD) petitions for review of an order of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education (Board) that (1) disapproved the creation of WTISD and its transfer from the Dover Area School District (Dover) to the Northern York County School District (Northern York); and (2) accepted and adopted the report of the Special Committee of the State Board of Education (Committee). Following the Board's grant of WTISD's petition for reconsideration and the Board's subsequent affirmation of its earlier decision denying WTISD's application for transfer, WTISD filed the petition for review at issue. For the reasons set forth below, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Public School Code of 1949 (School Code)[2] provides a mechanism by which a majority of taxpayers within any contiguous geographic territory may petition the court of common pleas to establish their territory as an independent school district for purposes of transferring that territory from its current school district(s) to another already existing school district. The administrative process for securing the transfer is a multi-step approval process involving the court of common pleas, the Secretary of Education (Secretary), and the Board. This Court has characterized "[t]he establishment of an independent school district [as] procedurally unusual because it must be acted upon both by a court of common pleas and by state agencies." In re Petition for Formation of Indep. Sch. Dist., 17 A.3d 977, 981 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) ("Riegelsville II").

         The initial procedure is outlined in Section 242.1(a) of the School Code, [3] which, in relevant part, provides:

A majority of the taxable inhabitants of any contiguous territory in any school district or school districts, . . . 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.

         Thereafter, Section 242.1(a) mandates that the court of common pleas hold a hearing on a petition "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." Section 242.1(a) of the School Code.

         In ruling on a petition, the court's role is strictly procedural, and it is not to inquire into petitioner's alleged reasons for the proposed transfer or rule on the merits of those reasons. In re Indep. Sch. Dist., 74 A.3d 389, 391 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013), appeal denied, 87 A.3d 321 (Pa. 2014) (Jefferson Township). At the mandatory hearing, the common pleas court is to determine four things: (1) the precise boundaries of the proposed district; (2) confirmation that a majority of taxable inhabitants in the contiguous territory have signed the petition; (3) confirmation that the petition includes petitioner's reasons for the transfer; and (4) confirmation that the petition includes the name of the school district into which the territory is proposed to be transferred. Id. at 391.

         In addition, before approving the petition, the common pleas court must refer the petition to the Secretary for a determination of "the merits of the petition . . . from an educational standpoint." Section 242.1(a) of the School Code. The common pleas court may not approve a petition "unless approved" by the Secretary. Id. If the Secretary determines that the petition has merit, and the common pleas court determines that the petition meets the technical requirements above, the common pleas court must order the establishment of an independent school district. In its order, or decree, the common pleas court must include a financial determination about the impact of the proposed transfer on the "receiving" and "losing" school districts. Id.

         Once the common pleas court and Secretary approve the petition, the matter moves to the Board under Section 292.1 of the School Code, [4] which provides:

When an independent district is created by the court of common pleas for purposes of transfer from one school district to another, the court shall submit to the State Board of Education its decree creating such district. Such decree shall be considered an application for the assignment of said district to the designated administrative unit of the approved county plan.

(Emphasis added.) The procedure for review and approval by the Board is set forth in Section 293.1 of the School Code, [5] which provides:

When a court decree is received creating an independent district for transfer purposes, the State Board of Education shall place such item on its agenda and either approve or disapprove the creation and transfer. If approval is given, the [B]oard shall direct the Council of Basic Education to make the necessary changes [to] the county plan. If disapproved, the [B]oard shall state its reasons for such disapproval and the independent district shall be provided a hearing if it so desires.

         In the present case, the Washington Township Education Coalition (WTEC) filed a July 2012 petition with the Court of Common Pleas of York County, requesting a transfer from Dover to Northern York and enumerating its reasons for asserting that the transfer had educational merit. In summary, WTEC's alleged reasons were as follows: (1) Northern York students have better educational outcomes than Dover students; (2) Northern York is better managed; (3) an elementary school closure in Dover resulted in Washington Township students having to travel farther to school while living closer to schools that they would attend if they were part of Northern York; (4) Dover has a higher rate of in-school crime and arrests than Northern York; and (5) school taxes in Northern York are lower, more stable, and more fairly applied than those in Dover. (WTEC's July 16, 2012, Petition to Establish Independent School District for Transfer at 3-4; Certified Record (C.R.), Vol. 1 at 4a-5a.) After confirming that 1, 406 of Washington Township's 1, 929 taxable inhabitants had signed the petition, that the petition properly described the territory, and that it set forth WTEC's reasons for the requested transfer, the court referred the petition to the Secretary.

         In evaluating the merits of the petition from an educational standpoint, the Secretary[6] considered the potential impact of the transfer on the Washington Township students, the students who would remain in Dover, and the students in Northern York. After comparing the respective schools' performances on certain educational metrics (SAT scores, proficiency in math and reading, graduation rates, drop-out rates, truancy rates, and in-school arrest rates), the Secretary concluded that Northern York outperformed Dover on each of the metrics. Ultimately determining that the proposed transfer would have a positive educational impact on the Washington Township students and that the parties had not presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the transfer would have a negative impact on the students who would remain in Dover or the students in Northern York, the Secretary deemed the petition meritorious from an educational standpoint. Accordingly, upon receipt of the Secretary's decision, the common pleas court entered an order, dated November 10, 2014, creating WTISD and transmitted the matter to the Board for review pursuant to Sections 292.1 and 293.1 of the School Code.

         Upon receiving the common pleas court's decree, the Board published public notice of its receipt of the petition for transfer and advised the public of the opportunity to submit written petitions to intervene, notices of intervention or protest, and written requests for a public hearing on the petition. In response, Dover submitted a protest to the petition and requested a public hearing. In addition, Northern York, Dover Area Education Association, [7] and Keep Us in Dover Schools (KIDS), [8] submitted petitions to intervene to the Board. While Northern York remained neutral, both KIDS and the Dover Area Education Association aligned with Dover to oppose the transfer.

         In January 2015, the Chairman of the Board, by resolution, appointed the Committee to conduct appropriate proceedings under the General Rules of Administrative Practice and Procedure (GRAPP)[9] and, upon completion, to make a recommendation as to whether the Board should approve or disapprove the creation and transfer of WTISD pursuant to Section 293.1 of the School Code. Three Board members served on the Committee.[10] Before rendering its recommendation, the Committee took care of preliminary matters such as granting Northern York's petition to intervene and authorizing the limited participation of the Dover Area Education Association and KIDS.[11] In addition, the Committee and the parties engaged in a series of pre-hearing conference calls for purposes of creating a timeline and requirements for pre-hearing submissions. In May 2015, the Committee met and formally adopted the pre-hearing record, which consisted of documents stipulated to by the parties and the Secretary's findings of fact and determination of educational merit. Finally, the Committee held a multi-day hearing in June 2015.

         At the hearing: (1) WTISD presented evidence in favor of the transfer; (2) Dover, Dover Area Education Association, and KIDS presented evidence against the transfer; and (3) Northern York presented a brief statement regarding its ability to accommodate the Washington Township students. After the evidentiary portion of the proceedings, members of the public were afforded the opportunity for public comment. In September 2015, the Committee unanimously recommended that the Board disapprove the petition for the creation of WTISD and its transfer from Dover to Northern York. Following an affirmative vote of the majority of its members, the Board adopted and accepted the Committee's recommendation and disapproved WTISD's petition. WTISD then filed a petition for reconsideration, and thereafter, by final determination dated November 19, 2015, the Board confirmed its earlier decision.

         By way of summary, the Board in disapproving the petition "did not find one district's educational program to be superior to the other's for the vast majority of the district's students." (Board's November 19, 2015, Decision on WTISD's Petition for Reconsideration at 10; C.R., Vol. 6 at 3635a.) Specifically, in deeming certain portions of the record more relevant and important to its decision, the Board in reviewing standardized test scores chose to place more emphasis on the School Performance Profile than on aggregate state assessment results alone. (Id. at 9-10; C.R., Vol. 6 at 3634a-35a.) In addition, the Board took into consideration "the variety of coursework available to students in each district, including foreign language and Advanced Placement offerings, and honors and technology education courses; opportunities for students to pursue postsecondary level coursework while in high school, and articulation agreements with postsecondary institutions; the delivery of Career and Technical Education; graduation rates; and drop-out rates." (Id. at 10; C.R., Vol. 6 at 3635a.) It also considered, inter alia, data that WTISD supplied depicting student/teacher ratios in the two districts. The Board, however, "did not find the differential between these measures to be significant in informing its decision." (Id.; C.R., Vol. 6 at 3635a.)

         On appeal, WTISD has raised ten issues. For purposes of discussion and disposition, we have reordered, condensed and combined the cognizable issues as follows: (1) where the districts did not object to the Secretary's determination of educational merit, whether the Board was bound by that determination, obligated to consider the petition using the educational merit standard, and constrained to use the same measures of comparison that the Secretary deemed relevant;[12] (2) whether the Board erred in appointing the Committee to conduct appropriate proceedings and, upon completion, to make a recommendation as to whether the Board should approve or disapprove the proposed creation and transfer; (3) whether the Board in rendering its decision actually reviewed the record in accordance with due process principles; (4) whether the Board erred in treating WTISD's request for a ...


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