Town of Dartmouth v. Greater New Bedford Reg'l Vocational Technical High Sch. Dist., SJC–10838.

Decision Date24 January 2012
Docket NumberSJC–10838.
Citation961 N.E.2d 83,461 Mass. 366,276 Ed. Law Rep. 411
PartiesTOWN OF DARTMOUTH v. GREATER NEW BEDFORD REGIONAL VOCATIONAL TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT & others.1
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Anthony C. Savastano, New Bedford, for the plaintiff.

Thomas P. Crotty for town of Fairhaven.

Jennifer Grace Miller, Assistant Attorney General, for Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.John A. Markey, Jr., Assistant City Solicitor, for city of New Bedford.Richard E. Burke, Jr., New Bedford, for Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School District, was present but did not argue.

Present: IRELAND, C.J., SPINA, CORDY, BOTSFORD, GANTS, DUFFLY, & LENK, JJ.

SPINA, J.

The present case concerns the way by which the costs of financing the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School District (school district) are apportioned among the city of New Bedford, the town of Dartmouth, and the town of Fairhaven, which are the municipalities comprising the school district (collectively, the member municipalities). In February, 2008, Dartmouth commenced an action in the Superior Court against the school district, the Commissioner of Education (commissioner), New Bedford, and Fairhaven (collectively, the defendants), challenging the funding obligations imposed on the member municipalities by the Education Reform Act of 1993 (Education Reform Act), St.1993, c. 71, § 32.2 See G.L. c. 70, § 6. Fairhaven filed a cross claim against the school district, the commissioner, and New Bedford, incorporating the averments of Dartmouth's first amended complaint and, additionally, asserting that the funding obligations imposed by the Education Reform Act were a disproportionate tax on property and income in violation of the Massachusetts Constitution. See Part II, c. 1, § 1, art. 4, of the Massachusetts Constitution; art. 44 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution.3

The school district and the commissioner each filed motions to dismiss Dartmouth's complaint and Fairhaven's cross claim pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), 365 Mass. 754 (1974), for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Following a hearing, a judge allowed the motions. New Bedford then filed a motion to dismiss Dartmouth's complaint and Fairhaven's cross claim, based on the “law of the case established by the judge's rulings on the prior motions to dismiss.4 A different judge allowed the motion. Judgment entered on April 28, 2009, dismissing the complaint filed by Dartmouth and the cross claim filed by Fairhaven. Dartmouth and Fairhaven appealed, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

We now consider whether the public school funding obligations imposed on the member municipalities by the Education Reform Act supersede the funding provisions of an agreement among the member municipalities entered into pursuant to St.1971, c. 428, which authorized the formation of the school district. We also consider whether the member municipalities, as political subdivisions of the Commonwealth, have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Education Reform Act. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the complaint filed by Dartmouth and the cross claim filed by Fairhaven were properly dismissed.

1. Background. Given that this is an appeal from a motion to dismiss, we summarize the pertinent facts as set forth in the complaint and the exhibits attached thereto. We begin with an overview of the legislative enactments at issue.

On June 25, 1971, the Legislature enacted St.1971, c. 428, entitled, “An Act authorizing the formation of a vocational regional school district by the city of New Bedford and the towns of Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Freetown, Lakeville, Mattapoisett and Rochester” (Special Act). Pursuant to the Special Act, New Bedford and each of the named towns were authorized to create a “vocational regional school district planning committee.” St.1971, c. 428, § 1. The planning committees from New Bedford and from any two or more of the named towns were authorized to “join together to form a vocational regional school district planning board,” id., the duty of which was “to study the advisability of establishing a vocational regional school district.” Id. at § 2. Among other responsibilities, the planning board was required to “submit a report of its findings and recommendations” to the city council of New Bedford and the board of selectmen of each participating town. Id. If the planning board recommended the establishment of a vocational regional school district, then it was required to submit a proposed agreement setting forth details regarding the creation and operation of such a regional school district to an “emergency finance board,” established under St.1933, c. 49, § 1, and to the Department of Education. St.1971, c. 428, § 3. Subject to their approval, the proposed agreement was to be submitted “to the several municipalities which are recommended to be included in the district, for their acceptance.” Id. The Special Act stated that the proposed agreement should set forth, among other things, [t]he method of apportioning the expenses of the regional school district....” Id.

The question whether to accept the terms of the Special Act, providing for the establishment of a vocational regional school district, then was to be presented to the voters of the participating municipalities. See id. at § 5. If a majority of the voters in each of those municipalities voted in the affirmative, then the Special Act would become fully effective, and the proposed vocational regional school district would be “deemed to be established forthwith in accordance with the terms of the agreement so adopted.” Id. The Special Act provided that [t]he powers, duties and liabilities of the regional school district shall be vested in and exercised by a regional district school committee,” id. at § 7, which “shall annually determine the amounts necessary to be raised to maintain and operate the district school or schools during the next fiscal year, ... and shall apportion the amount so determined among the several municipalities in accordance with the terms of the agreement.” Id. at § 8. Further, the Special Act stated that [n]o municipality in the regional school district shall be liable for any obligation imposed on any other municipality in said district by authority of this act, or of any agreement thereunder, any other provision of law to the contrary notwithstanding.” Id. at § 12.

Municipal officials in New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Fairhaven followed the procedures set forth in the Special Act to establish the school district. A majority of the voters in those municipalities then voted to accept the terms of the Special Act, and to approve the creation and operation of the school district in accordance with the provisions of an agreement among the member municipalities dated February 25, 1972 (regional agreement). The school located in the school district is “an occupational, technical, and vocational high school consisting of grades nine through twelve, inclusive.” Extended courses of instruction beyond grade twelve may be provided in accordance with G.L. c. 74, § 37A. The regional agreement set forth the method for apportioning the capital costs and operating costs of the school district among the member municipalities.5 All operating costs, except those described in the regional agreement as “special operating costs,” were to be apportioned to the member municipalities “on the basis of each municipality's respective pupil enrollment in the regional district school.” 6

Approximately twenty-two years later, on June 18, 1993, the Legislature enacted the Education Reform Act, see generally G.L. cc. 69, 70, 71, the purpose of which was “to provide immediately for the improvement of public education in the [C]ommonwealth.” 7 St.1993, c. 71, preamble. The Legislature declared that the Education Reform Act was intended to ensure “a consistent commitment of resources sufficient to provide a high quality public education to every child,” so that all children would have “the opportunity to reach their full potential and to lead lives as participants in the political and social life of the [C]ommonwealth and as contributors to its economy.” G.L. c. 69, § 1. See Hancock v. Commissioner of Educ., 443 Mass. 428, 432, 822 N.E.2d 1134 (2005) (Marshall, C.J., concurring) ( Hancock ). To that end, the Legislature sought “to assure fair and adequate minimum per student funding for public schools in the [C]ommonwealth by defining a foundation budget and a standard of local funding effort applicable to every city and town in the [C]ommonwealth (emphasis added). G.L. c. 70, § 1.

Pursuant to the Education Reform Act, a “foundation budget” is established for every school district in Massachusetts,8 G.L. c. 70, § 3, and is derived from a complex formula designed to account for the number and needs of children living in each district. See G.L. c. 70, §§ 2 et seq. See also Hancock, supra at 437–438, 822 N.E.2d 1134 (Marshall, C.J., concurring) (foundation budget has been described as Commonwealth's estimate of minimum funding needed in each district to provide adequate educational program). With respect to contributions by municipalities belonging to a regional school district, each municipality is required to appropriate annually, in addition to other specified appropriations, “an amount equal to not less than the sum of the minimum required local contribution, federal impact aid, and all state school aid and grants for education but not including equity aid, for the fiscal year.” G.L. c. 70, § 6. As pertinent here, the commissioner establishes, on an annual basis, each municipality's minimum required local contribution toward the operation of its public schools. See G.L. c. 70, §§ 2, 6. See also Holden v. Wachusett...

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