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home : news : news Saturday, June 25, 2016

1/2/2013 Email this articlePrint this article 
Easton Valley locked into grade sharing agreement, attorney says

By Jeremy Huss
Staff writer

According to its legal counsel, the Northeast Community School District's whole-grade sharing agreement with East Central for grades 7-12 will not end when the new Easton Valley district officially comes into existence July 1.

The newly-formed Easton Valley School District currently has no authority to terminate the whole-grade sharing agreement, Northeast's attorney said, and the terms of the whole-grade sharing contract require the agreement to continue until 2016, even if Easton Valley terminates the contract once it officially comes into existence.

At a special meeting of the Northeast school board Dec. 19, attorney Drew Bracken of the Ahlers and Cooney law firm of Des Moines told an audience of approximately 40 persons only the East Central school district has the authority to request withdrawal from the whole-grade sharing agreement with Northeast.

Although Easton Valley school board members have been elected and held meetings, the board has no authority over the agreement until after July 1, when the combined district will come into existence and the East Central and Preston districts are disbanded.

In a Dec. 14 letter to Northeast superintendent Jim Cox, Easton Valley School Board president Craig Thines stated Easton Valley is "not a party" to the sharing agreement and the agreement "has no bearing on Easton Valley."

Thines' letter says the whole-grade sharing contract between Northeast and East Central will be nullified when East Central ceases to exist July 1.

However, the letter goes on to state Easton Valley is providing notice of its intent to cancel the agreement "because of the uncertainty with regard to the contract continuation."

At the Dec. 19 meeting, Bracken said Easton Valley doesn't have the authority to cancel the agreement until after the East Central district is dissolved.

"As long as East Central is in existence, its board has exclusive jurisdiction," Bracken said, citing the Iowa Code and legal opinions from the Iowa attorney general.

"The Easton Valley board has no authority over the assets and liabilities of the East Central School District until July 1, 2013. Therefore, the Easton Valley board has no authority over the agreement and is not authorized to terminate the agreement," Bracken wrote in a legal analysis of the sharing contract.

In addition, Bracken pointed out the whole-grade sharing agreement specifies it does not pertain only to East Central, but to any successor to the district.

"This clause was put in to provide stability and predictability," Bracken said.

The whole-grade sharing contract allows the agreement to be cancelled by mutual agreement of both districts at the end of any given school year, or by unilateral action by either district prior to Dec. 15.

However, because the contract provides for a "rolling three-year agreement" that is renewed annually, it would remain in effect for two-and-a-half years after unilateral termination in order to fulfill the three-year contract term, Bracken said.

Because Dec. 15 has passed without a request from East Central to withdraw from the agreement, any future request will be effective at the next option date of Dec. 15, 2013, meaning the sharing agreement would remain in effect until the end of the 2015/16 school year, according to Bracken.

Transfer of assets and liabilities

The attorney reviewed with the audience and school board members a brief history of the effort to merge the East Central and Preston school districts.

The merger petition could have included plans for the division of assets and liabilities from Preston and East Central, Bracken said, but it did not, and the issue was not addressed by the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency when it authorized the merger vote.

Easton Valley will inherit East Central's and Preston's assets and liabilities as of July 1, including all contractual obligations, such as the sharing agreement.

Between July 1 and July 20, the Iowa Code provides a 20-day window for members of the Easton Valley board to meet with the East Central and Preston boards to discuss a joint agreement for an equitable division of assets and liabilities and agree on a course of action.

After July 20, the Easton Valley board has exclusive authority to make decisions affecting the assets and liabilities of the new school district.

If the Easton Valley and East Central board agree to terminate the whole-grade sharing agreement during the 20-day window, the agreement will conclude at the end of the 2015/16 school year.

After July 20, the agreement can be cancelled by mutual agreement of Northeast and Easton Valley. However, if Northeast is not interested in termination, Easton Valley can exercise its right to unilaterally terminate the agreement, but the agreement again would continue until the 2015/16 school year.

Legal action possible

Following Bracken's presentation, several audience members asked questions about other impacts of the Easton Valley merger.

Sabula parent Erica Shoemaker asked how the continuation of the whole-grade sharing agreement will affect student transportation.

Bracken said East Central or its successor, Easton Valley, will be responsible for providing transportation for students involved in whole-grade sharing with Northeast.

However, he advised parents to "hedge their bets" by open enrolling at Northeast in case Easton Valley seeks to avoid compliance with the agreement.

Sabula resident and Northeast teacher Jennifer Huling asked if current Preston students in grades 7-12 will have to whole-grade share with Northeast. She noted current East Central teachers will be required to adhere to Preston's union contract when the merger takes effect.

Bracken said the union contract is a separate issue and is controlled by specific language in the Iowa Code.

Asked what would happen if Easton Valley does not comply with the sharing agreement, Bracken said its important Northeast begin an early dialogue with Easton Valley.

"We need to see what can be worked out. If there is a disagreement, an injunction might be sought.

"There is a huge public interest in this, and I'm confident a judge would not want to leave families in limbo," he said.

Northeast superintendent Cox agreed it's important to start discussions now to seek common ground.

"But if an agreement is not reached, it is important to protect the families who have chosen to attend here," Cox said.

Cox said he hopes any issues with the whole-grade sharing agreement can be resolved by April, though he noted the Easton Valley board has a lot on its plate in regard to establishing the new district.

The Northeast board directed Bracken to notify the Easton Valley board of its expectations and concerns regarding the whole-grade sharing agreement.

Other business

In other business, the Northeast board:

•Tabled a review of bids for three new buses until a legal concern could be addressed.

•Approved an allowable growth budget request for at-risk students.

•Was updated on security procedures at Northeast's campus and received a summary of a security training program being initiated.

•Reviewed the proposed calendar for the 2013/14 school year.

Correspondent Andy Leheny contributed to this story.

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