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Decision Number
Closing of Bunger School of Technology
Debra Miller, et al.
Waterloo Community School District
Full Text

The Bunger School of Technology [BST] was created in the midst of one of the gravest financial crises faced by any Iowa school district. The program was spawned by concerns over low achieve-ment scores , a high student attrition rate and a shrinking enrollment. In the Fall of the 1995-96 school year, the District opened BST in the former Bunger Junior High School in Evans-dale. The school opened its doors to 214 ninth and tenth grade students who were accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. The student body had a minority ratio of 9.3%, about half of the District's overall minority average. BST was conceived as a technologically-oriented high school which would include grades 11 and 12 within two years. It was intended to operate as a high school in addition to the District's three other high schools: East High School, West High School and EXPO-EDC. The total cost to operate Bunger was estimated to be $1,067,868.00 plus costs for transportation and costs associated with the courses Bunger students took at East and West High Schools. These costs do not include Bunger students' participation in extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Those costs are additional because Bunger was not yet a full, four-year high school with a complete athletic program.

The threshold issue before us is whether or not the Board's closure of the Bunger School of Technology was done in violation of the guidelines recommended by the State Board of Education in the case of In re Norman Barker, 1 D.P.I. App. Dec. 145 (1977). Appellants' argument is two-fold; (1) the Board's decision to close Bunger was actually made on November 13, 1995 in complete disregard of the Barker guidelines; and (2) the Board's decision to have another vote on February 26, 1996, following a public hearing was done only to avoid any adverse legal consequences for failing to follow the Barker guidelines prior to the November 13th vote. As a corollary to this, Appellants argue that even if the Board's final vote to close Bunger was actually taken on March 1, 1996, the decision should be invalidated because of the Board's failure to make a "good faith" effort to follow the Barker guidelines during the period from November 13, 1995, to the final vote on March 1, 1996.

The District Board further argues that its exercise of discre-tion under this broad grant of authority cannot be disturbed by the State Board under the latter's limited scope of review. In support of this proposition, the District Board relies on language from the Iowa Supreme Court which states courts should refrain from interfering with decisions of school boards made pursuant to statutory authority.In applying the appropriate standard of review to the facts of this case, we must ask whether the District Board's action in closing Bunger, in light of the Barker guidelines, was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of authority, or ill-advised, unwise, and inexpedient? Since this review is de novo, all relevant facts must be considered in making the determination. The legal principles guiding the outcome suggest that the correct result lies somewhere between the two extremes suggested by the opposing parties; the State Board's scope of review is not as narrow and strict as that suggested by the District; but neither is strict adherence to the Barker guidelines required by the State Board as suggested by Appellants.

At the conclusion of the Barker decision, the State Board (formerly the Iowa Department of Public Instruction Board) sets forth recommended guidelines for all school districts to follow with regard to school closings. These seven guidelines were suggested as "a reasonable and prudent procedure to follow in making decisions as important as the closing of an attendance center. Appellants made an excellent case for the fact that on November 13, 1995, the District Board decided to close Bunger in complete disregard of the Barker guidelines. If that was the only issue to be decided, it would be decided in favor of the Bunger supporters and the Board's decision would be reversed. Even under the more relaxed adherence to Barker, which the State Board allows when a District faces a financial emergency, there should still be some input from the parents who will be impacted by the Board's decision before that decision is made. Certainly some input from the affected school's teachers and administra-tion should also be sought. Neither of these groups were con-sulted prior to the Board's November 13, 1995, decision. If the Appellants had appealed to the State Board within thirty (30) days of that decision, the District Board's decision would have been recommended for reversal.

However, in reversing the November decision, the State Board would have directed Waterloo to go back through the Bunger decision-making process to give the community an opportunity for input and further study. The District Board would have been advised to reschedule a final decision within a "reasonable" amount of time.

But, there was no appeal of the Board's November 13, 1995, decision. Consequently, we have no authority to reverse the Waterloo Board for what occurred back then. What the facts show is that shortly after making that decision, the Superintendent and Board realized they needed to honor the process recommended by the Barker case. They began to do that. In fact, they did what they would have been required to do had the November 13, 1995, decision been appealed and reversed by the State Board. There is no more that can be required of the District Board as a result of this appeal.