Administrative Law Judge Carol Greta has ruled in favor of the Spencer school board's Nov. 22, 2011 decision to restructure the elementary buildings into a grade-alike system.
"There is no fraud and no abuse of discretion established by the record presented here," Greta wrote in the proposed decision she submitted Tuesday. "Although its decision may be unpopular with some, the local school board exercised its statutory authority for reasons that were neither arbitrary nor irrational."
"This issue is understandably of utmost importance to families of elementary-age students who will be losing their neighborhood schools," Greta continued. "We understand that the appellants vigorously disagree with the decision of the local board. But there are no legal grounds for reversal by this board."
The Iowa Board of Education will make a final decision in the case titled James and Alison Herman, et al. v. Spencer Community School District, based on Greta's proposed decision, on March 29 unless a party files an appeal by March 5. Whether or not the proposed decision will be appealed is unknown because attempts to contact the appellants' attorney, Sean Barry, before press time were unsuccessful.
During a Feb. 9 phone hearing with Greta, Barry relied on the 2002 decision in Jacobson v. Nodaway Valley Community School District, which enunciated four criteria guiding a local school board's process for grade structures.
"They argue that inadequate notice was given to the public that the issue was under consideration, inadequate study of the pertinent factors was undertaken, and that because the process was rushed, there was no promotion of open and frank discussion," Greta summarized.
However, analysis of that decision is no longer applicable after the Iowa Supreme Court's decision in Wallace v. Iowa State Board of Education in 2009, Greta explained.
Instead, the Iowa Supreme Court has stated, "[We] look only to whether a reasonable person could have found sufficient evidence to come to the same conclusion as reached by the school district. In doing so, we will find a decision was unreasonable if it was not based upon substantial evidence or was based upon an erroneous application of the law. Neither we nor the Department [of Education] may substitute our judgement for that of the school district."
Using that criteria, the appellants were required to prove the school board violated a procedural requirement.
"The appellants' argument fails because there was sufficient evidence in this record of notice to families and opportunity to be heard," Greta said. "The committee meetings were not required to be publicly noticed, and there is no evidence the parent informational meetings were inadequately noticed."
Next, the appellants cited a lack of research regarding grade-alike schools and alleged the board's decision was pre-determined, unreasonable and irrational, but Greta said the state board is not to second-guess well supported local board decisions.
"The issue is not whether restructuring the elementary grades and buildings was the best decision," she said. "The issue is whether voting to restructure the buildings under a grade-alike concept was contrary to the local board's statutory authority or was done for irrational reasons."
She does not believe that was the case and said "substantial, credible reasons existed" to justify both approval and rejection of grade-alike restructuring.
"Even if we view all of the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the appellants, we must conclude that a reasonable person could reach the same conclusion as was reached by the Spencer board," Greta said.
Steve Avery, who represented the school district, said Greta's decision was "the anticipated result."
"The standard is whether the board abused its discretion and the determination by the hearing judge was that they had not abused their discretion," Avery said. "Iowa has a history and practice of respecting local control of schools. This follows the practice that local boards make local decisions."
While Greta's proposed decision is in favor of the district, she noted voters will have the final word.
"The voters hold the local directors responsible for what voters perceive to be unwise decisions or decisions with which voters disagree by changing the make-up of the local board through the election process," Greta said.