391 S.W.3d 713 (Ky. 2012), 2011-SC-000658-DGE, Jefferson County Bd. of Educ. v. Fell

Docket Nº:2011-SC-000658-DGE.
Citation:391 S.W.3d 713
Opinion Judge:ABRAMSON, Justice.
Party Name:JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Appellants v. Chris FELL, as Father and Next Friend of L.F., et al., Appellees.
Attorney:Byron Edward Leet, Lisa Catherine DeJaco, Anne Reed Maclean, Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP, Louisville, KY, Counsel for Appellants. Teddy Bernard Gordon, Louisville, KY, James Bruce Miller, Norma Carter Osborne Miller, J. Bruce Miller Law Group, Louisville, KY, Sheila P. Hiestrand, Hughes & Coleman...
Judge Panel:MINTON, C.J.; NOBLE, SCHRODER, and SCOTT, JJ., concur. CUNNINGHAM, J., dissents by separate opinion in which VENTERS, J. joins. VENTERS, J., dissents by separate opinion in which CUNNINGHAM, J., joins. CUNNINGHAM, J., Dissenting: VENTERS, J., joins. VENTERS, J., Dissents By Separate Opinion: CUNN...
Case Date:September 20, 2012
Court:Supreme Court of Kentucky
 
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Page 713

391 S.W.3d 713 (Ky. 2012)

JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Appellants

v.

Chris FELL, as Father and Next Friend of L.F., et al., Appellees.

No. 2011-SC-000658-DGE.

Supreme Court of Kentucky.

September 20, 2012

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Byron Edward Leet, Lisa Catherine DeJaco, Anne Reed Maclean, Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP, Louisville, KY, Counsel for Appellants.

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Teddy Bernard Gordon, Louisville, KY, James Bruce Miller, Norma Carter Osborne Miller, J. Bruce Miller Law Group, Louisville, KY, Sheila P. Hiestrand, Hughes & Coleman, Louisville, KY, Counsel for Appellees.

Grant Robert Chenoweth, Robert Lynn Chenoweth, Frankfort, KY, Counsel for Amicus Curiae, Kentucky School Boards Association; The Board Of Education Of Fayette County.

Everett Clay Hoffman, Priddy, Cutler, Miller & Meade, PLLC, Stephen T. Porter, Gerald A. Neal Louisville, KY, Counsel for Amicus Curiae, Cheryl Armstrong, Amicus Curiae, Jocelyn Moore; Patricia Kannapel; John Grossman; Seana Golder; Roger Bradshaw; Jefferson County Teachers Association; League of Women Voters of Louisville and Jefferson County, Inc.

Sheryl G. Snyder, Junis L. Baldon, Frost, Brown, Todd, LLC, Louisville, KY, Counsel for Amicus Curiae, The Louisville Urban League; The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-Louisville Branch.

Mark Russell Cambron, Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, Louisville, KY, Counsel for Amicus Curiae, Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.

Michael A. Owsley, Samantha Lynn Propp, English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley, LLP, Bowling Green, KY, Counsel for Amicus Curiae, Central Kentucky Educational Cooperative; Green River Regional Educational Cooperative; Kentucky Educational Development Corporation; Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative; Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative; Southeast/South Educational Cooperative; West Kentucky Educational Cooperative.

OPINION

ABRAMSON, Justice.

The parents of fourteen Jefferson County schoolchildren brought this action claiming Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 159.070 grants their children a statutory right to attend the public school nearest their home. While the litigants have discussed extensively the particular student assignment plan adopted by the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), this case, from its inception, has raised solely an issue of statutory construction, an issue that is of consequence in all 120 counties of the Commonwealth. Having considered the language of KRS 159.070, the remainder of Chapter 159 regarding "Compulsory Attendance," and the specific legislative history of KRS 159.070, we conclude that Kentucky public school students have no statutory right to attend a particular school. Appellant Jefferson County Board of Education and the Kentucky School Boards Association, which has appeared as amicus curiae in this case along with 159 other Kentucky school districts, are correct in asserting that student assignment within a school district in Kentucky is a matter that the legislature has committed to the sound discretion of the local school board. Accordingly, we reverse the erroneous decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the ruling of the Jefferson Circuit Court dismissing the Complaint in this action.

STATEMENT OF RELEVANT FACTS

In the summer of 2010, Scott Arnold as Father and Next Friend of S.A. filed a Complaint in Jefferson Circuit Court claiming his son was denied the right to attend the elementary school nearest their home in contravention of KRS 159.070. This alleged statutory violation was the sole claim in the Complaint. The named Defendants were the Jefferson County

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Board of Education and the then-Superintendent of JCPS, Dr. Sheldon Berman. (These Defendants are collectively referred to herein as "JCPS.") Through five amended complaints and eventually an Intervening Complaint, twelve other parents joined the lawsuit asserting identical violations of KRS 159.070 on behalf of their children. (The parents are collectively referred to herein as "Plaintiffs.") 1 JCPS filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02, and the Jefferson Circuit Court granted that motion on the grounds that the Plaintiffs' interpretation of the statute was simply incorrect. The circuit court concluded that "enroll" and "attend" are not interchangeable and held that the legislative history of KRS 159.070 established legislative intent not to equate the two words.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed in a divided opinion wherein the majority concluded that "[t]he legislature has mandated that parents have the right to enroll their child in the school nearest their home and ‘enroll’ means for purposes of attendance." That court, in an unprecedented opinion, ordered JCPS to develop a new student assignment plan for the 2012-13 school year that was "reasonably consistent with KRS 159.070 and this Court's opinion." JCPS was directed to submit its new assignment plan to the circuit court for approval with the Court of Appeals indicating that the magnet schools, special language programs, special education programs and similar specialized programs that serve many of JCPS's approximately 99,000 students would not necessarily be abolished. Rather, "JCPS will have the opportunity to request that specific schools not be included in the statutory mandate because the school serves specialized needs throughout the county." JCPS was deemed to have discretion to establish attendance areas and implement transportation plans for the district "limited only by reasonable compliance with constitutional and statutory law," apparently a reference to federal school desegregation law and KRS 159.070. From this far-reaching opinion which granted final authority on the proper assignment of public school students to a local circuit judge, JCPS sought discretionary review.

ANALYSIS

I. The Statutory Construction Issue Presented By Plaintiffs' Complaint.

Plaintiffs claim that Kentucky schoolchildren are entitled to attend the public school nearest their home, often referred to as their "neighborhood school," by virtue of the plain language of KRS 159.070. Although Plaintiffs have focused primarily on the last sentence of that statute, it is important to consider the statute in its entirety. KRS 159.070 states:

Each school district shall constitute a separate attendance district unless two (2) or more contiguous school districts, with the approval of the Kentucky Board of Education, unite to form one (1) attendance district. Controversies arising in attendance districts relating to attendance matters shall be submitted to the Kentucky Board of Education for settlement. In case an agreement suitable to all parties cannot be reached, the Kentucky Board of Education may dissolve a united district. In case of dissolution, each school district involved may

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unite with other contiguous school districts in forming a united attendance district or may act as a separate attendance district. Within the appropriate school district attendance area, parents or legal guardians shall be permitted to enroll their children' in the public school nearest their home.

(emphasis supplied). Simply put, Plaintiffs maintain that "enroll their children in the [nearest] public school" means that their children are entitled to attend that neighborhood school while JCPS maintains that "enroll" is not synonymous with "attend." 2 JCPS posits that Jefferson County schoolchildren may and do "enroll" as JCPS students at the school serving their home address but that enrollment means registering and does not automatically equate with attendance at that particular school. JCPS relies on accepted definitions of "enroll" and "attend," the language employed in other provisions of KRS Chapter 159, the specific history of KRS 159.170 and longstanding Kentucky jurisprudence regarding the role of local school boards in student assignment. With the issue before us properly framed, we turn to the principles of statutory construction that must guide our decision.

II. The Governing Principles of Statutory Construction.

When construing a statute, this Court is presented with an issue of law which we address de novo. Cumberland Valley Contractors, Inc. v. Bell County Coal Corp., 238 S.W.3d 644, 647 (Ky.2007). "The cardinal rule of statutory construction is that the intention of the legislature should be ascertained and given effect." MPM Financial Group, Inc. v. Morton, 289 S.W.3d 193, 197 (Ky.2009); Saxton v. Commonwealth, 315 S.W.3d 293, 300 (Ky.2010) ("Discerning and effectuating the legislative intent is the first and cardinal rule of statutory construction."). This fundamental principle is underscored by the General Assembly itself in the following oft-quoted language of KRS 446.080(1): "All statutes of this state shall be liberally construed with a view to promote their objects and carry out the intent of the legislature...." In Shawnee Telecom Resources, Inc. v. Brown, 354 S.W.3d 542, 551 (Ky.2011), we summarized the basic principles of statutory construction as follows:

In construing statutes, our goal, of course, is to give effect to the intent of the General Assembly. We derive that intent, if at all possible, from the language the General Assembly chose, either as defined by the General Assembly or as generally understood in the context of the matter under consideration.... We presume that the General Assembly intended for the statute to be construed as a whole, for all of its parts to have meaning, and for it to harmonize with related statutes.... We also presume that the General Assembly did not

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intend an absurd statute or an unconstitutional one.... Only if the statute is ambiguous or otherwise...

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