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|9/21/2013 ||Email this article Print this article |
|Court rules for Easton Valley in whole-grade sharing dispute|
By Jeremy Huss
A Clinton County District Court judge issued a ruling Sept. 12 granting a motion for summary judgment for the Easton Valley Community School District and denying claims filed by the Northeast Community School District in a lawsuit Northeast filed over whole-grade sharing.
The ruling declared an August 2011 amendment to the whole-grade sharing agreement between Northeast and East Central community schools, which later merged with the Preston district to become Easton Valley, is void and unenforceable.
Northeast had sought a ruling that would force Easton Valley to comply with the agreement by sending students in grades 7-12 to attend Northeast and providing transportation.
Instead, the ruling in favor of Easton Valley means students in secondary grades residing in the Easton Valley district will continue to attend school in their resident district unless they have open enrolled elsewhere.
According to Observer records, 113 students from East Central schools attended Northeast through the whole-grade sharing agreement in 2012. Northeast superintendent Jim Cox said in August there were 164 students from the Easton Valley School District attending Northeast through open enrollment.
In a legal analysis of school mergers included in the ruling, judge Gary McKenrick noted the issues are local legislative or political matters, and the court must limit itself to strictly legal questions rather than assessing the wisdom or practicality of such reorganizations.
McKenrick then laid out the uncontested facts of the case, noting the Northeast and East Central school boards engaged in meetings and discussions about whole-grade sharing in the 2009/10 school year while other community members in East Central and Preston pursued a parallel track to explore a potential merger.
A petition for the merger was submitted to the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency (AEA) May 3, 2010, and the AEA voted June 16 to place the merger question on the ballot in both districts.
Meanwhile, the East Central school board signed a whole-grade sharing agreement with Northeast June 23, 2010.
The agreement provided secondary students from East Central would attend classes and participate in extra-curricular activities at Northeast, and East Central would pay Northeast 90 percent of the per-pupil funds it receives from the state, plus a proportionate share of teacher salary supplement funds. The total exceeds $500,000 per year.
The agreement was for a rolling, three-year term, and it was amended in August 2011 to include any successor to East Central.
Litigation was filed over the East Central and Preston merger question that delayed the election until Sept. 11, 2012, when a majority of the voters in each district approved the school consolidation.
McKenrick stated in the ruling, the merger vote and the whole-grade sharing agreement both were conducted under a valid process that implicates basic constitutional rights.
"However, the ability does not exist for the East Central board to bind a future Easton Valley board to its legislative determination a whole-grade sharing arrangement with Northeast was the better educational choice than a merger with Preston.
"Thus, the August 2011 amendment of the whole-grade sharing agreement between East Central and Northeast, which purported to bind the 'successors' of East Central, is void and unenforceable."
The ruling further states Northeast's position the amendment is superfluous, and Easton Valley is bound by the rolling three-year term of the agreement, is inconsistent with Iowa Code language regarding the distribution of assets and liabilities resulting from a school merger.
Despite the ruling, the legal battle may not be completely over after McKenrick granted a motion filed by Northeast to amend its lawsuit to include a breach of contract claim.
He stated in the ruling, the court takes no position on the viability of the breach of contract claim in light of the summary judgment ruling because the issue is not presently before the court.
Northeast superintendent Jim Cox cast the ruling in a favorable light, although he noted it means students who reside in Easton Valley but attend Northeast will have to continue using bus drop-off locations at Northeast's district borders.
"It actually benefits Northeast because it increases our revenue significantly," Cox said.
Under the whole-grade sharing agreement, Northeast received 90 percent of the state per-pupil funds granted to East Central, but the district receives 100 percent of the funds for students attending through open enrollment, garnering Northeast around $6,000 per student rather than the $5,400 per student received through whole-grade sharing.
The Northeast school board will review the court ruling and discuss a possible appeal when it meets 6 p.m., Monday, Sept. 23, at the elementary library.
"I expect the board to review it and decide within a month what to do, if anything. There's no rush to judgment on this," Cox said.
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