Bryan v. Yellowstone County Elementary School District No. 2, 01-813.

Decision Date26 November 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-813.,01-813.
Citation312 Mont. 257,60 P.3d 381,2002 MT 264
PartiesBarbara D. BRYAN, Petitioner and Appellant, v. YELLOWSTONE COUNTY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 2 and Board of Trustees of Yellowstone County Elementary School District No. 2, Respondents and Respondents.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Peter Michael Meloy (argued), Jennifer S. Hendricks, Meloy Law Firm, Helena, Montana, For Appellant.

Laurence R. Martin (argued), Mary E. Duncan, Felt, Martin, Frazier, Jacobs & Rapkoch, P.C., Billings, Montana, For Respondents.

Justin Starin, Montana School Boards Association, Helena, Montana (for Montana School Boards Association), For Amicus Curiae. Justice JIM REGNIER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 In anticipation of a projected budget shortfall for the 2001-02 school year, Respondents Yellowstone County Elementary School District No. 2 and Board of Trustees of Yellowstone County Elementary School District No. 2 (collectively referred to hereinafter as the "District") elected to close three elementary schools in Billings, Montana. Appellant Barbara Bryan filed a petition in the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, for a writ of prohibition precluding the District from initiating the school closures and a writ of mandate directing the District to comply with an adopted school closure policy. Bryan cited violations of her constitutional right to know and participate in support of her petition. The District Court denied Bryan's petition and Bryan appeals. We reverse and remand.

¶ 2 We address the following restated issues on appeal:

¶ 3 1. Is an advisory committee, established by a school board, subject to the constitutional mandates prescribed in Article II, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution?

¶ 4 2. Did the District violate Bryan's constitutional right to know and participate?

¶ 5 3. If the District violated Bryan's constitutional right to know and participate, to what remedy is Bryan entitled?

BACKGROUND

¶ 6 In the summer of 2000, in anticipation of a budget shortfall for the 2001-02 school year, the District directed a group of principals, referred to as the Principals' Committee, to investigate alternative methods of "delivering education," aside from the traditional K-6 model. The Principals' Committee sought to reduce operating expenses and maintain student-teacher ratios without necessitating school closures. On February 12, 2001, the Principals' Committee, now referred to as the Reconfiguration Committee, presented a report to the Billings Public School Board. This report introduced three models to reduce expenditures and maintain optimal student-teacher ratios: cluster schools, kindergarten centers, and sister schools.

¶ 7 Following the submission of this report, the Reconfiguration Committee was expanded to further investigate the viability of the latter two models. This expansion added three teachers, a school librarian, and the Billings Education Association president to the committee. Nilo Cabrera, a member of the School Board, had also joined this committee sometime in early February. From mid February to the first week of March 2001, the Reconfiguration Committee, the School Board, and the public exchanged ideas on implementing the proposed reconfiguration models.

¶ 8 On March 5, 2001, the School Board established another committee, the Facilities Committee, to review the reconfiguration proposals and consider the option of school closures. The Facilities Committee consisted of the principals from the Principals' Committee, Nilo Cabrera, two teachers, and four members of the public from various geographical areas of town. The Facilities Committee was to gather information and provide a recommendation to the School Board on April 2, 2001.

¶ 9 The Facilities Committee first convened on March 19, 2001. From that date to April 9, 2001, the Facilities Committee met approximately eight times to synthesize a multitude of information in support of its ultimate recommendation. Sometime between the 19th and 21st of March 2001, Cabrera, a computer professional by trade, utilized a spreadsheet program to summarize information regarding various schools in the district. The spreadsheet contained, in part, information about each school's: capacity; per capita expenditures for gas, water, and electricity; square footage; maintenance costs; projected cost of repairs; percentage of students bused to school; special education requirements; growth potential; and average class size.

¶ 10 Based on this and other information, Cabrera developed a rating system which assigned points to each respective school. Purportedly, the schools which received the highest point totals were those which were the least cost-effective for the District to operate. Between March 19 and April 9, 2001, Cabrera distributed several copies of this spreadsheet to the Facilities Committee, the public, and the School Board. However, the copies varied in format and content. For instance, some versions contained the names of the schools, others substituted an objective identification number for the school names. Further, some versions did not incorporate the rating system or explanation of the point allocation.

¶ 11 On March 29, 2001, the School Board hosted a public forum to address the budget issues confronting the District for the 2001-02 school year. The School Board disseminated budget information to Bryan and the rest of the general public in attendance, which included one version of Cabrera's spreadsheet. This version of the spreadsheet did not reference the rating system or otherwise indicate any prioritizing scheme regarding the schools in the district. Following this meeting, the Facilities Committee completed its deliberations and submitted its recommendation to the School Board at another public meeting on April 2, 2001. The Facilities Committee proposed two closure options both proposals contemplated the closure of Rimrock School and Beartooth School, and recommended alternative options for the closure of at least one other school.

¶ 12 On April 3, 2001, the School Board sent a letter to parents which outlined the Facilities Committee's recommendation. The letter indicated that the School Board would hold another meeting on April 9, 2001, for the public to attend and provide comment before the School Board reached its final decision. Upon receiving the letter, Bryan joined with a coalition of Rimrock parents to rebut the recommendation to close Rimrock School. On April 4, 2001, one of the Rimrock parents, Lisa Schroeder, spoke with the District's superintendent and requested a "head-to-head comparison" of the schools based on the criteria examined by the Facilities Committee. The superintendent claimed that she did not have such a comparison and was not certain whether one even existed.

¶ 13 On April 5, 2001, Schroeder observed Cabrera in a television interview standing next to a stack of documents. According to Schroeder, Cabrera stated that each of the local schools had been itemized on a spreadsheet and compared to one another. Therefore, on April 6, 2001, Schroeder called the superintendent's office with another request for the purported comparison. Again, the office denied having any knowledge about such a comparison. Schroeder also sent an email request for the comparison to a member of the School Board but received no response.

¶ 14 On April 9, 2001, the School Board held its final meeting on the school closure issue. Members of the public, including Bryan, addressed the School Board about the recommendation and urged the Board not to close Rimrock School. After the public comment period concluded, the School Board began its discussion on the school closure recommendation. At that point, Cabrera distributed spreadsheets to the School Board which contained the rating system. Cabrera then described the point allocation to the School Board but did not distribute this version of the spreadsheet to the public. The Rimrock parents did not obtain the spreadsheet containing the rating system until the morning of April 10, 2001. However, by that point, the School Board had already voted to accept the Facilities Committee's recommendation and close Rimrock, Beartooth, and Garfield Schools.

¶ 15 On May 8, 2001, Bryan filed a complaint against the District which requested that the District Court nullify the School Board's school closure decision and order disclosure of all documents related to that decision. Bryan also requested that the District Court issue a writ of prohibition precluding the District from implementing the school closure decision and a writ of mandate ordering the District to comply with a specified school closure policy. On July 19, 2001, following an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied the relief requested by Bryan and dismissed her complaint. Bryan appeals the District Court's judgment.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 16 Bryan maintains that she is appealing the District Court's "ruling as to the right to know and the right to participate." Our review of questions involving constitutional law is plenary. Schuff v. A.T. Klemens & Son, 2000 MT 357, ¶ 28, 303 Mont. 274, ¶ 28, 16 P.3d 1002, ¶ 28. A district court's resolution of an issue involving a question of constitutional law is a conclusion of law which we review to determine whether the conclusion is correct. Schuff, ¶ 28.

DISCUSSION
ISSUE ONE

¶ 17 Is an advisory committee, established by a school board, subject to the constitutional mandates prescribed in Article II, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution?

¶ 18 Before we address the merits of this case, we must first address whether Bryan had standing to file this suit against the District. In a footnote in its response brief, the District asserts that "Bryan cannot `represent' Lisa Schroeder and claim Ms. Schroeder's `injury' as her own. If Ms. Schroeder's right to...

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