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Group can't challenge high school closure

June 23, 2011

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a parent and taxpayer group’s legal challenge to the closing of a Fort Wayne school, finding the decision doesn’t violate the state constitution.

In Save Our School: Elmhurst High School v. Fort Wayne Community Schools, et al., No. 02A04-1012-PL-746, Save Our School: Elmhurst High School sued seeking declaratory judgment against Fort Wayne Community Schools and the Fort Wayne Community Schools Board of School Trustees to force Elmhurst High School to remain open.

In March 2010, FWCS decided to close the high school for budgetary reasons and send the students to three of the other five Fort Wayne high schools. The closure was effective with the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

Members of SOS, parents of students who attended Elmhurst and district property taxpayers, argued the three high schools the children would now attend were poorer in academic performance. FWCS filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted.

The majority of the Indiana Court of Appeals decided to address the issue even though the case is now moot as the school is closed. SOS argued the closing of Elmhurst violated the Education Clause of the Indiana Constitution as well as the Equal Privileges and Immunities Clause. Judges Michael Barnes and Carr Darden ruled the constitutional claims were foreclosed by Bonner ex rel. Bonner v. Daniels, 907 N.E.2d 516 (Ind. 2009), in which the Indiana Supreme Court held the Education Clause doesn’t impose upon government an affirmative duty to achieve any particular standard of resulting educational quality.

“It is our opinion that Bonner leaves no room for recognizing a claim such as SOS wants to press. FWCS is continuing to operate a ‘general and uniform’ public school system. It just happens to be operating it with one less high school than before. SOS’s claim that FWCS closed the ‘wrong’ school or should not have closed Elmhurst at all, based on a comparison of the academic merits of Elmhurst, Wayne, North Side, and South Side, is not a cognizable Education Clause claim under Bonner,” wrote Judge Barnes.

The majority also held SOS is not entitled to relief under the common law doctrine of judicial review as there is no “common law” right to review the actions of a school corporation such as FWCS.

Judge Patricia Riley concurred in result because she would declare the appeal to be moot. No effective relief could be rendered to the parties because Elmhurst is closed and the teachers and students have gone on to other schools.

“While I do not dismiss the potential public interest involved here, I would prefer to embark on a constitutional analysis after more facts are known and the precedent created by the case would be more valuable,” she wrote, pointing out that no discovery had been conducted and the summary judgment stage hadn’t even been reached.

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