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Martin v. Allegany County Board of Education

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

June 28, 2013

LINDA MARTIN, ET AL.
v.
ALLEGANY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION

Meredith, Graeff, Hotten JJ.

OPINION

Hotten, J.

Appellants, Linda Martin and other similarly situated parents, filed a petition for judicial review of the Maryland State Board of Education's ("State Education Board") determination, which affirmed the decision of appellee, the Allegany County Board of Education ("Allegany Education Board"). At issue was the termination of an agreement between the Allegany Education Board and the Washington County Board of Education ("Washington Education Board"), which provided approximately forty students, who resided in Allegany County, the opportunity to attend schools in Washington County. Appellants allege that the Allegany Education Board's decision violated the M d. Code (1978, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2012 Cum. Supp.), § 4-121 of the Education Article[1] [hereinafter "Education Article § 4-121"]. The Circuit Court for Allegany County affirmed the State Education Board's ruling. Appellants noted an appeal, and present two questions for our consideration:

I. Was the decision of the Allegany County Board of Education in violation of § 4-121 of the Education Article, and thus properly subject to reversal by the State Board and/or the lower court?
II. Was the decision of the Allegany County Board of Education arbitrary or capricious and violative of sound educational policy, thereby mandating reversal by the State Board and/or the lower court?
For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On August 1, 2000, the Allegany Education Board voted to close a school in the most eastern region of its county, [2] and to consolidate students from the closing facility to nearby institutions.[3] To address the parents' apprehension regarding the consolidation, the Allegany Education Board and the Washington Education Board entered into an agreement, which allowed students, who resided in Little Orleans, Allegany County, Maryland to attend secondary schools in either Cumberland, Maryland in Allegany County or Hancock, Maryland in Washington County. Many students opted to attend school in Allegany County, while others decided to attend the Washington County schools. "The students who attended school in Washington County were counted as Washington County students for the purpose of calculating state aid to schools. The Allegany [Education Board] paid the transportation costs for all of said students."[4]

On February 28, 2011, the superintendent of Allegany County Public Schools, David Cox ("Mr. Cox"), drafted letters to the parents whose children opted to attend school in Washington County, stating (parenthesis omitted):

. . . For the 2011-2012 school year[, ] Allegany County Public Schools face a reduction in state funding of over $6.5 million due to our declining enrollment and loss of state revenues. As a result, we must consider the termination of our contract with Washington County Public [S]chools to continue providing some $191, 000 of Allegany County revenue for approximately 40 students to attend Washington County Public Schools. This arrangement also costs Allegany County Public Schools about $400, 000 in lost state revenue. As you can see, this arrangement costs [Allegany County Public Schools] about $600, 000 per year.
We recognize the impact that this consideration would have on your child(ren) and on students who are in their secondary years of study, and do not take that lightly. We wish that this consideration were [sic] not necessary. The cuts in state funding will all be finally determined by the General Assembly, and the final impact and recommended arrangements will not be known until then.

Thereafter, the Allegany Education Board extensively debated the issue, and held a public hearing for parents, students, and the community to assert their viewpoints regarding the possible termination of the agreement, answer countless questions, and provide information to impacted families. On June 3, 2011, Mr. Cox again corresponded with the parents via letter, indicating:

At the June 1, 2011 meeting of the Allegany County Board of Education, the Board voted to phase out the tuition support program that currently supports residents in the Little Orleans community to attend middle and high school in Washington County. Allegany County residents who are students in the 10[th] - 12[th] grades at Hancock High School in the 2011-2012 school year will receive tuition support. It is the intent of the Board to allow these students to complete their high school experience at Hancock High School over the next three years, contingent on available funding. Transportation will be provided to Hancock High School at least for one more year.
Students who are in grades Pre-K through 9[th] grade for the 2011-2012 school year who live in the Little Orleans community are districted to attend Flintstone Elementary, Washington Middle School, and Fort Hill High School, as some have chosen even while we have supported the Washington County choice. We welcome all the children of Little Orleans to Washington Middle and Fort Hill High School and will plan an orientation session for a better transition experience . . . .[5]

On June 29, 2011, appellants requested that the State Education Board review the Allegany Education Board's decision pursuant to the Code of Maryland Regulations ("COMAR") 13A.01.05.02.[6]

On July 27, 2011, the Allegany Education Board filed a motion for summary affirmance, [7] requesting that the State Education Board summarily affirm its decision pursuant to COMAR 13A.01.05.03D.[8] Thereafter, a "Save Orleans Students" group requested that the Circuit Court for Allegany County issue a temporary restraining order and an interlocutory injunction, which would permit Little Orleans residents to continue schooling in Washington County. The court ruled in favor of the Allegany Education Board, denying both the temporary restraining order, as well as the injunction on August 23, 2011. The group noted an appeal to our Court, but the action was dismissed.

On October 25, 2011, the State Education Board granted review and determined that (1) Education Article § 4-121 included the word "may, " so there was no requirement of a cross-boundary school attendance and (2) "[i]t [was] incumbent on local boards when making decisions to consider the validity of all expenditures and to weigh and balance the needs of all students in th[o]se tough fiscal times."

On November 22, 2011, appellants filed a petition for judicial review. On November 29, 2011, the Allegany Education Board filed its response. On February 24, 2012, both parties filed a joint motion for extension of time to file their briefs, which was granted. On M arch 23, 2012, appellants filed an appeal in the Circuit Court for Allegany County pursuant to Md. Code (1984, 2009 Repl. Vol., 2012 Cum. Supp.), § 10-222(a) of the State Government Article, for judicial review of the State Education Board's decision.[9] On April 13, 2012, the Allegany Education Board filed its response.

Following a hearing on June 21, 2012, the trial court issued a memorandum and order on July 9, 2012, affirming the State Education Board, where it concluded that appellants did not support their assertion that Education Article § 4-121 was not discretionary, and that the State Education Board did not err in finding that the Allegany Education Board's decision was not arbitrary and capricious.

Appellant noted a timely appeal.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The doctrine that an individual has a Maryland constitutional right to judicial review regarding an administrative action is mostly predicated on Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.[10] Jackson v. Dackman Co., 422 Md. 357, 378 (2011) (citing State v. Bd. of Educ., 346 Md. 633, 647 (1997)) (additional citation omitted). It provides:

That every man, for any injury done to him [or her] in his [or her] person or property, ought to have remedy by the course of the Law of the [L]and, and ought to have justice and right, freely without sale, fully without any denial, and speedily without delay, according to the Law of the [L]and.

Id. at 376.

In examining the propriety of a trial court's consideration of a petition for judicial review, we analyze the agency's decision, not the trial court's ruling. Venter v. Bd. of Educ., 185 Md.App. 648, 664 (2009) (quoting Days Cove Reclamation Co. v. Queen Anne's County, 146 Md.App. 469, 484 (2002)) (quoting Gigeous v. E. Corr. Instit., 363 Md. 481, 495-96 (2001)). In this regard, we examine "the materials that were in the record before the agency at the time it made its final decision." Bd. of Educ. of Talbot County v. Heister, 392 Md. 140, 146 (2006) (citing Chertk of v. Dep't of Nat. Res., 43 Md.App. 10, 17 (1979)).

We review the agency's determination to consider whether such a ruling was "'in accordance with the law or whether it [was] arbitrary, illegal, and capricious.'" Venter, 185 Md.App. at 664-65 (quoting Maryland Dep't of the Env't v. Ives, 136 Md.App. 581, 585 (2001)). Hence, our Court will affirm the agency's decision if it was predicated on substantial evidence from the record, and not erroneous as a matter of law. Id. at 665 (quoting United Parcel Serv., Inc. v. People's Counsel, 336 Md. 569, 577 (1994)).

"The substantial evidence standard of review asks "'whether a reasoning mind reasonably could have reached the factual conclusion the agency reached, " Comptroller of the Treasury v. Clise Coal, Inc., 173 Md.App. 689, 697-98 (2007) (quoting Fairchild Hiller Corp. v. Supervisor of Assessments of Washington County, 267 Md. 519, 521-22 (1973)) (quoting Ins, Comm'r v. Nat'l Bureau, 248 Md. 292, 309-10 (1967)), and if not, we may "overrule [the] agency's factual finding [if] the finding is 'unsupported by competent, material, and substantial evidence in light of the entire record as submitted.'" Id. at 697 (citing Md. Code (1984, 2009 Repl. Vol., 2012 Cum. Supp.), § 10-222(h)(v) of the State Government Article).

"'[T]he paramount role of the State Board of Education in interpreting the public education law sets it apart from most administrative agencies.'" Montgomery County Educ. Ass'n, Inc. v. Bd. of Education of Montgomery County, 311 Md. 303, 309 (1987) [hereinafter "Montgomery County Educ. Ass'n"] (quoting Bd. of Educ. for Dorchester County v. Hubbard, 305 Md. 774, 791 (1986)). Our Courts have traditionally held that "the State [Education] Board has very broad statutory authority over the administration of the public school system in this State." Heister, 392 Md. at 152 (quoting Bd. of Educ. of Prince George's County v. Waeldner, 298 Md. 354, 359-60 (1984)). This is further evidenced by Md. Code (1978, 2008 Repl. Vol., 2012 Cum. Supp.), § 2-205(e) of the Education Article, which provides the State Education Board with the authority to "explain the true intent and meaning of the [statute's] provisions[.]" Montgomery County Educ. Ass'n, 311 Md. at 309.

We have generally described the State Education Board's authority as follows:

We think it beyond question that the power of visitation vested in the State [Education] Board is one of general control and supervision; it authorizes the State [Education] Board to superintend the activities of the local boards of education to keep them within the legitimate sphere of their operations, and whenever a controversy or dispute arises involving the educational policy or proper administration of the public school system of the State, the State [Education] Board's visitatorial power authorizes it to correct all abuses of authority and to nullify all irregular proceedings.

Bd. of Educ. of Montgomery County v. Montgomery County Educ. Assoc., Inc., 66 Md.App. 729, 739-40 (1986) (quoting Zeitschel v. Bd. of Educ., 274 Md. 69, 81 (1975)) (quotations omitted).

We do recognize that the State Education Board's authority is not unfettered, as it cannot apply its power "fraudulently, in bad faith, in breach of trust, or in direct contravention of [a] statute." Id. at 740. "Decisions of a local [education] board involving a local policy or a controversy and dispute regarding the rules and regulations of the local board shall be considered prima facie correct, and the State [Education] Board may not substitute its judgment for that of the local board unless the decision is arbitrary, unreasonable, or illegal."[11] COMAR 13A.01.05.05(A). We acknowledge that "[i]f the State [Education] Board's interpretation or application of [a statute], in a particular situation, would clearly be contrary to the statute's plain meaning, a reviewing court must reject that interpretation." Montgomery County Educ. Ass'n, 311 Md. at 309. However, "under its visitatorial power, the "last word" or the "final decision" rests with the State [Education] Board as to any dispute concerning the administration of the public school system . . . ." Bd. of School Comm'rs of Baltimore City v. James, 96 Md.App. 401, 418 (1993) (quoting Waeldner, 298 Md. at 361). See also Education Article § 2-205(e)(2) and (3) ("The Board shall decide all controversies and disputes under these provisions[, and] [t]he decision of the Board is final."); New Bd. of School Comm'rs of Baltimore City v. Pub. School. Adm'rs & Supervisors Ass'n of Baltimore City, 142 Md.App. 61, 70-71 (2002) (additional citations omitted); Montgomery County Educ. Ass'n, 311 M d. at 310; McIntyre v. Bd. of Educ., 55 Md.App. 219, 224 (1983); Bd. of Educ. v. McCrumb, 52 Md.App. 507, 514 (1982) ("[T]he Maryland State Board of Education then is vested with the last word on matters of educational policy or the administration of the system of public education) (additional citation omitted); Resetar v. State Bd. of Educ., 284 Md. 537, 556 (1979) ("[T]he totality of the various statutory provisions concerning the State [Education] Board quite plainly . . . invests the State [Education] Board with the last word on any matter concerning educational policy or the administration of the system of public education.") (internal quotation omitted) (additional citation omitted); Wilson v. Bd. of Educ. of Montgomery County, 234 Md. 561, 565 (1964) (additional citations omitted).

DISCUSSION

Whether The State Education Board Erred In Determining That The Allegany Education Board's Decision Did Not Violate Education Article § 4-121 And Was Not Arbitrary And Capricious.

Before we analyze the statute, we explore the Court of Appeals's discussion in Chesapeake Charter, Inc. v. Anne Arundel County Bd. of Educ., 358 M d. 129, 137-38 (2000) regarding the hierarchy of Maryland's education system, explaining as follows:

The State government structure for primary and secondary education is the State Department of Education, created by [Education Article] § 2-201 "as a principal department of the State government." The Department consists of (1) the State Board of Education, which is the head of the Department [(Education Article] § 2-102) . . ., (2) the State Superintendent of Schools, who is a member of the Governor's Executive Council [(Education Article] § 2-303(d)) and serves, in essence, as the chief executive officer of the Department, and (3) the other professional, administrative, and clerical employees employed by the Department, who are State government employees for budgetary and personnel purposes.
For each county, the [General Assembly] has created a county department of education that, in structure, generally mirrors that of the State Department of Education. The county school board is the head of the county department and is responsible for administering, in the county, the supervening State policy determined by the State Board of Education, in accordance with State Board's directives.[12] There is, as well, a county superintendent, who is the executive officer of the county board and, in essence, the chief executive office of the county department . . . .

The circumstances regarding cross-boundary school enrollment for non-resident students are governed by Education Article § 4-121(b) and (c), which provides in pertinent part:

(b) School to be free. – A school that is in one county and near the boundary of an adjoining county is free to the children of the adjoining county as provided in this section.
(c) Joint provision for school support and attendance policies; . . . – (1) The county boards of the two counties may:
(i) Provide jointly for the maintenance and support of the jointly attended school in the receiving county; and
(ii) Determine the geographical attendance areas and other attendance policies of the two counties for all jointly attended schools in the receiving county.
(2) If the two county boards fail to agree on a geographical attendance area or attendance policy, the State Superintendent shall decide the matter.
Subsection (d) of Education Article § 4-121 addresses funding, which states:
(d) Funding. – (1) For each fiscal year, the sending county shall pay the receiving county, for each student who resides in the sending county and who attends a public school in the ...

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