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Closing A School Building Does Not Implicate Due Process or Fiduciary Rights

Matthew M. Hoffman, Esq., (412) 594-3910, mhoffman@tuckerlaw.com

Save Our Saltsburg Schools v. River Valley School District, No. 1140 C.D. 2021 (Pa.Cmwlth. November 7, 2022) (Commonwealth Court rejects community group’s efforts to invalidate school district’s decision to close a school building).

Background

Until 2021, the River Valley School District (previously known as the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District) had two middle-high schools, Saltsburg High and Blairsville High.  The District’s mission statement declares that the District “has an obligation to ensure that all [District] students will have equal access to a high-quality education[.]”  In February 2020, the District’s Board of School Directors voted to schedule a public hearing to discuss closing Saltsburg High in accordance with Section 780 of the Public School Code of 1949, 24 P.S. § 7-780.

The Section 780 hearing was held virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on January 13-14, 2021.  The hearing included a presentation by the District’s superintendent providing a rationale for closing Saltsburg High School and its consolidation into Blairsville High School and potential future use or disposition of the Saltsburg school. Saltsburg students, alumni, parents, business owners, and community members voiced opposition to the plan, including the projected impact of lengthier commutes to Blairsville High School on Saltsburg area students’ educational and extracurricular experiences. Save Our Saltsburg Schools (SOSS) was a group representing Saltsburg area students, parents, community members, and business owners which provided the District with a report setting forth similar and additional concerns in opposition to the closing of Saltsburg High School.

On April 22, 2021, the Board Members voted to close Saltsburg High School and proceed with the consolidation at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

In June 2021, SOSS filed a complaint against the District in the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County. The Complaint alleges that the Board Members never considered the alternative of keeping Saltsburg High School open and closing Blairsville High School (which is an older building); that before the Section 780 hearing, some Board Members made public statements about the proposed closure based on what SOSS characterizes as faulty information; that SOSS asked the Board Members to provide more information, but the Board Members declined to do so; that Board Members repeatedly indicated publicly before the hearing that the closure was moving forward; and that the Board Members “did not care” about the impact of the closure on Saltsburg High’s students.

The Complaint contends that the Board Members improperly decided to close Saltsburg High before the Section 780 hearing and without public commentary or oppositional information.  The Complaint adds that plans for a new athletic facility were not discussed or voted on publicly by the Board, but that those plans, rather than the best interests of students, formed the true motivation for closing Saltsburg High.  As such, SOSS asserted that its procedural due process rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution were violated and that the Board Members breached a fiduciary duty to SOSS and the Saltsburg community.  The Complaint sought unspecified money damages and injunctive and/or declaratory relief.

The School District filed preliminary objections to the complaint, asserting that the complaint failed to establish a due process right to education at the school of one’s choice, that no fiduciary duty existed between SOSS and the Board Members, and that the Board Members were immune from SOSS’s suit under both the doctrine of high public official immunity and Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Tort Claims Act), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541-8564.  In September 2021, those preliminary objections were granted and the SOSS complaint was dismissed. An appeal followed to the Commonwealth Court which affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the SOSS action.

Discussion

SOSS argued that the District and Board Members predetermined the closure of Saltsburg High School before the Section 780 hearing was held and acted for personal reasons and not in the best interests of the students and community; therefore, SOSS characterized the hearing as a “sham” and a violation of procedural due process rights of SOSS and the community.

Section 780 of the Public School Code states: “In the event of a permanent closing of a public school or substantially all of a school’s facilities, the board of school directors shall hold a public hearing on the question not less than three (3) months prior to the decision of the board relating to the closing of the school.” The Commonwealth Court concluded that this provision only establishes a procedural rule for the closing of a school building and does not create a constitutionally recognized liberty or property interest to keep certain school buildings open. Thus, the Commonwealth Court concluded that, because a Section 780 hearing is not adjudicative in nature, such a hearing does implicate procedural due process rights.

SOSS’ complaint also contended that a fiduciary relationship existed because the Board Members were elected by District citizens to run the public schools, a role that entails significant power, including the authority to close schools.  SOSS asserted that the Board Members breached their fiduciary duty and harmed the community and students by closing Saltsburg High for personal gain, specifically the desire for an enhanced football facility and program.

The Court rejected the contention that the Board of School Directors owed a fiduciary duty to the community when making an inherent managerial decision of whether to close a school. The Court further noted that the fiduciary relationship and duty SOSS posited conflicts with the clear legislative statements in the Public School Code empowering school boards to determine to close schools.

Consequently, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the dismissal of SOSS’ complaint.

Practical Advice

The decisions of the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County and the Commonwealth Court recognized and upheld the broad discretion vested in boards of school directors to determine to close school buildings. Typically, legal challenges to those decisions are premised upon allegations of an abuse of discretion which, in the context of school closings, courts rarely conclude exist. The SOSS complaint presented creative attempts to recharacterize a school closing decision as implicating procedural due process and fiduciary responsibilities, which efforts were categorically rebuffed by the courts given the statutory latitude afforded to school boards upon such matters.

For more information, contact Matt Hoffman at (412) 594-3910 or at mhoffman@tuckerlaw.com.

March 01, 2023

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