In re Vaughn School Transfer Petition

In re Vaughn School Transfer Petition, 2015 MT 313 (Nov 3, 2015) (Rice, J.; McKinnon, J., dissenting) (4-1, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred by affirming a panel of county school superintendents’ decision to dismiss a school territory transfer petition.

Short Answer: No.

Affirmed

Facts: The Hillcrest Hutterite Colony Attendance Center in Cascade County was formed after several colony members petitioned the Vaughn School District’s Board of Trustees in February 2013. The school district and the colony entered into a contract under which the school district agreed to provide educational services in exchange for use of a colony facility. The parties agreed that the school would be operated as a public school of the Vaughn School District. The district employs a full-time teacher and a teacher’s aide at the center, and provides books, equipment and teaching supplies. The administrator of the school district is the chief administrator of the center.

The center opened in August 2013, and in November 2013, the school district received a petition requesting transfer of a specified portion of territory from Vaughn School District to Power School District in Teton County. Because the petition sought a transfer involving more than one county, a panel of three county superintendents assembled to decide the matter, pursuant to § 20-6-105(10), MCA. The statute governing territory transfers provides that transfers shall not be made if they are within three miles of an operating school district. Because the Hutterite Attendance Center was within three miles of the requested transfer, the panel dismissed the petition.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Power School District petitioned for judicial review of the panel’s decision. The district court affirmed, reasoning that the Attendance Center is an operating school maintained under state law at public expense. Power School District appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms, with Justice McKinnon dissenting.

Reasoning: The issue is whether the Hutterite Attendance Center is an “operating school” under the statute. Montana law does not define an attendance center. OPI uses the term synonymously with “school.” Under the terms of the contract between the colony and the school district, the attendance center operates as a public school of the Vaughn School District. It is open to any student in the area, not just colony students. The panel did not act unreasonably in concluding the center operates as a public school.

Power also argues that the district court erred because the attendance center was not opened consistent with the statute’s procedural requirements. Specifically, the county commissioners did not vote to approve the center as a school. The Court holds that concluding a school was not established on that basis alone would elevate form over substance.

Justice McKinnon’s Dissent: The Vaughn School Trustees failed to follow the applicable legal procedures for establishing a new elementary school by not seeking the approval of the Cascade County Commissioners or the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction. The attendance center is not a school, and to hold otherwise is to ignore the plain language of the statute.