Justia Education Law Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiffs, a number of independent school districts, school boards, parents, students, and citizens, challenged the implementation of Act 46, as amended by Act 49, regarding the involuntary merger of school districts. The Vermont Legislature enacted those laws in 2015 and 2017, respectively, to improve educational outcomes and equity by designing more efficient school governance structures in response to long-term declining student enrollment and balkanized educational governance and delivery systems. In separate decisions, the civil division dismissed several counts of plaintiffs’ amended complaint and then later granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the remaining counts. In two consolidated appeals, plaintiffs argued that: (1) the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education failed to carry out the plain-language mandate of Act 46; and (2) the Board’s implementation of the law, as manifested in its final order, violated other statutes in Title 16 and several provisions of the Vermont Constitution. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that the Agency’s and Board’s implementation of the law was consistent with the challenged Acts and other statutes in Title 16, did not result from an unlawful delegation of legislative authority, and did not violate any other constitutional provisions. Accordingly, the civil division’s decisions were affirmed. View "Athens School District et al. v. Vermont State Board of Education et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Huntington School District appealed the civil division’s order dismissing its complaint on motion of the two state defendants and granting defendant Mount Mansfield Modified Unified Union School District's motion for judgment on the pleadings. This case was one of several lawsuits challenging the implementation of Act 46 (as amended by Act 49) regarding the involuntary merger of school districts. Plaintiff raised four issues on appeal; three of those were resolved by the Vermont Supreme Court in a contemporaneously issued opinion concerning another challenge to the implementation of Acts 46 and 49, Athens Sch. Dist. et al. v. State Board of Education, 2020 VT 52. In this opinion, the Supreme Court set forth only the law and procedural history relevant to plaintiff’s single claim of error not decided in Athens School District: that the State Board of Education exceeded its delegated authority under Act 46 “by designating Huntington as a member of Mount Mansfield and purporting to subdelegate to Mount Mansfield the power to merge Huntington.” In relevant part, plaintiff alleged in its complaint that because Mount Mansfield was a union school district receiving incentives under Acts 153 and 156, the Board could not order Huntington to merge or otherwise alter its governance structure pursuant to Act 46, section 10(b). Plaintiff also alleged that the Board acted beyond its authority by calling for Mount Mansfield to vote on merger pursuant to 16 V.S.A. 721, while at the same time not allowing plaintiff to veto the merger by its own vote under the same statute. The state defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a viable claim for relief, and Mount Mansfield moved for judgment on the pleadings. The Supreme Court found "unavailing" plaintiff's argument that Act 46 as amended did not authorize the Board to order Huntington to merge with Mount Mansfield, conditioned upon the consent of coters in Mount Mansfield's member districts. Nor did the Court found any merit to plaintiff's argument that the Board's authority was unlawfully subdelegated. As we stated with respect to the plaintiffs in Athens School District, plaintiff in this case did not demonstrate the Board failed to apply any Title 16 provisions in circumstances in which they were applicable. View "Huntington School District v. Vermont State Board of Education et al." on Justia Law

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Two teachers at Roman Catholic elementary schools were employed under agreements that set out the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic School faith community; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases. Each taught religion and worshipped with her students, prayed with her students. Each teacher sued after her employment was terminated. One claimed violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the other claimed she was discharged because she requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment. The Ninth Circuit declined to apply the Supreme Court's 2012 Hosanna-Tabor “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees. The Supreme Court reversed. The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses foreclose the adjudication of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions. Several factors may be important in determining whether a particular position falls within the ministerial exception. What matters is what an employee does. Educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith lie are the core of a private religious school’s mission. The plaintiff-teachers qualify for the exception; both performed vital religious duties, educating their students in the Catholic faith, and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term “minister” but their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion is important. The Ninth Circuit mistakenly treated the Hosanna-Tabor decision as a checklist; that court invested undue significance in the facts that these teachers did not have clerical titles and that they had less formal religious schooling than the Hosanna-Tabor teacher. The Court rejected a suggestion that an employee can never come within the Hosanna-Tabor exception unless the employee is a “practicing” member of the religion with which the employer is associated. View "Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the school district in an action brought by a student, alleging Title IX and constitutional claims stemming from her abuse by two school employees who were later criminally prosecuted. Under the Supreme Court's decision in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, a school district is not liable under Title IX for teacher-on-student harassment unless the district, among other things, had "actual notice" of the misconduct and was "deliberately indifferent" to it. The court held that the school peace officer is not an "appropriate person" for purposes of Title IX. The court also held that the school district did not have knowledge of prior acts of sexual harassment that provided actual knowledge of a risk of substantial harm under Title IX. Finally, the court held that the school district does not have municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. 1983. View "Doe v. Edgewood Independent School District" on Justia Law

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B.L., as an MAHS freshman, was on the junior varsity cheerleading squad. The next year, she was again placed on JV. An incoming freshman made the varsity team. B.L took a photo of herself and her friend with their middle fingers raised and posted it to her Snapchat story that was visible to about 250 “friends.” The caption stated: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” A teammate took a screenshot and sent it to a cheerleading coach. Another coach stated that: “Several students” had approached her, “visibly upset” about the snaps. The coaches decided B.L.’s snap violated team and school rules, which required cheerleaders to “have respect for [their] school, coaches, . . . [and] other cheerleaders”; avoid “foul language and inappropriate gestures”; and refrain from sharing “negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches . . . on the internet.” The coaches removed B.L. from the team. School authorities upheld the decision. B.L. filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in B.L.’s favor. B.L. did not waive her speech rights by agreeing to the team’s rules; her suspension from the team implicated the First Amendment even though extracurricular participation is merely a privilege. B.L.’s snap was off-campus speech and had not caused any actual or foreseeable substantial disruption of the school environment. View "B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District" on Justia Law

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After a “very public complaint” by a female student, Oberlin instructed its faculty that they should “[b]elieve” students who report sexual assault. Professor Raimondo became Oberlin’s Title IX Coordinator, stating she was “committed to survivor-centered processes.” The Department of Education’s Office notified Oberlin of an investigation into its sexual harassment and sexual assault complaint process. While that investigation was pending, undergraduate “Jane” told Raimondo that “John” had sexually assaulted her. Raimondo appointed Nolan to investigate. Oberlin’s policy states that investigation should usually take no more than 20 days and resolution should take no more than 60. Nolan took 120 days to issue a report. John emailed Raimondo about the impact the investigation was having on his life. Raimondo did not respond with any information. Assistant Dean Bautista was appointed as John’s advisor. The testimony at the hearing was mixed. Bautista “left the hearing early” and, two weeks later, retweeted: “To survivors everywhere, we believe you.” About 240 days after the complaint, the panel found John responsible for sexual misconduct because “the preponderance of the evidence established that effective consent was not maintained for the entire sexual encounter” because Jane was incapacitated from the moment she stated that she was “not sober.” The panel cited no other behavior supporting that finding and did not mention the contradiction between what Jane told Nolan (and others) and what she told the hearing panel. John was expelled. The Sixth Circuit held that John adequately stated a claim that Oberlin violated Title IX. The court noted “clear” procedural irregularities. The record did not support a finding that Jane met the Policy’s definition of “incapacitation.” View "Doe v. Oberlin College" on Justia Law

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The California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code 21000; CEQA) requires public universities to mitigate the environmental impacts of their growth and development, including student enrollment increases. To ensure that the University of California “sufficiently mitigate significant off-campus impacts related to campus growth and development,” the University is required periodically to develop a comprehensive, long-range development plan for each campus, based on the academic goals and projected enrollment. (Ed. Code 67504(a)(1).) The plan must be analyzed in an environmental impact report (EIR). A 2005 EIR that analyzed a development plan and projected enrollment increases for the U.C. Berkeley campus. Opponents claimed the University violated CEQA by increasing enrollment well beyond the growth projected in the 2005 EIR without conducting any further environmental review. The trial court ruled in favor of the University. The court of appeal reversed. Section 21080.09 does not shield public universities from complying with CEQA when they make discretionary decisions to increase enrollment levels. Opponents adequately pled that respondents made substantial changes to the original project that trigger the need for a subsequent or supplemental EIR. The court stated that its decision did not constitute an enrollment “cap.” View "Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California" on Justia Law

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The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) granted University Professional and Technical Employees' (UPTE's) petition for unit modification to add a new classification, systems administrators, into a preexisting bargaining unit. The University of California refused to bargain over the terms and conditions of employment for systems administrators. PERB granted UPTE's unfair practice charge against the University. The University appealed, arguing that the systems administrator classification did not share a community of interest with the existing bargaining unit as required under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (Gov. Code 3560) and that PERB erred in not requiring proof of majority support by the unrepresented systems administrators subject to the unit modification petition. The court of appeal denied the petition. PERB’s finding that a community of interest exists is supported by substantial evidence. The job descriptions reflect a similarity in “common skills” and “job duties” between systems administrators and employees in the unit. The University fails to cite any evidence suggesting a disparity between the job descriptions and the employees’ actual skill sets. PERB properly counted the number of systems administrators at the time the petition was filed; PERB’s holding that it lacked the discretion to require proof of majority support from UPTE was not clearly erroneous. View "Regents of the University of California v. Public Employment Relations Board" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court denied the writ of mandamus sought by Andrew Frank to compel Ohio State University (OSU) to provide documents that Frank's attorney had requested in a public-records request, holding that OSU responded promptly and fully to the attorney's request and that Frank was not entitled to a writ of mandamus. The records in question were student records containing "personally identifiable information." The parties disputed whether the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. 1232g, applied to the requested records. The Supreme Court denied the writ of mandamus without reaching the issue, holding that OSU responded promptly and fully to the attorney's request and, therefore, Frank was not entitled to a writ of mandamus. View "State ex rel. Frank v. Ohio State University" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff School districts located in Midwest City/Del City, Enid, Ponca City, and Oklahoma City filed an action alleging they received insufficient State Aid payments for the years 1992-2014. The named defendants were: the Superintendent of Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE); the Oklahoma Tax Commission; and (3) the Oklahoma State Treasurer. Plaintiffs sought writs of mandamus to compel defendants to demand and recoup excessive State Aid payments made to other school districts, and then pay the correct apportionments to plaintiffs. Plaintiffs sought summary judgment, and intervenors, school districts in Tulsa County, sought summary judgment against plaintiffs. The district court granted intervenors' motion for summary judgment and concluded the defendants did not have a duty to seek repayment of excessive State Aid payments made to other schools until an audit was performed by auditors approved by the State Auditor and Inspector. Plaintiffs appealed and after review, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held the audit used by the State Board of Education when demanding repayment must be performed by auditors approved by the State Auditor and Inspector. A school district possesses a legal right to a proper apportionment of State Aid regardless of excessive payments made to other districts. A school district lacked a cognizable legal interest and standing in a claim to compel the State Board of Education to fund a lapsed appropriation. Plaintiffs' filings raised the issue of their standing to judicially compel legislative appropriations; standing would have to be adjudicated on remand. View "Independent School District # 52 v. Hofmeister" on Justia Law