News: CJ Exclusives

Court Rules on School Assignment

Decision means that parents must renew challenges each year

A variety of federal and state laws protect the rights of disabled children. The rights contained in these laws may be protected by court action — for example, parents may sue to a school board in an attempt to have a child with disabilities placed into a different school, that may have programs better suited to meet the child’s needs.

A July 20 decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals, however, places a large restriction on using the courts in these and other school assignment cases. The state’s second highest court held that legal challenges in school assignment cases become moot when the school year ends, even if the student does not get into the school in subsequent years.

John and Cynthia Sullivan filed a legal challenge against the Wake County Board of Education on behalf of their son, John. The younger John was diagnosed just before kindergarten as having Sensory Integration Disorder and as being developmentally delayed. Four educational and psychological professionals noted that John would benefit from attending a year-round school. As a result, the Sullivans applied to have their son attemd kindergarten classes at Oak Grove Elementary School, a year-round magnet school within walking distance of their house, during the 2002-03 school year. Oak Grove was the only year-round school that the Sullivan’s could apply to under Wake County’s student assignment plan.

Despite the professional opinions and a recommendation from the Wake School’s Project Enlightenment John was assigned to Dillard Elementary School, not Oak Grove. The school board subsequently affirmed the decision.

The Sullivans appealed the decision to Superior Court, where Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. issued an order upholding the board’s decision on February 3, 2003. The Sullivans then moved for review by the Court of Appeals. The parents also tried unsuccessfully to get their child into Oak Grove for the 2003-04 school year.

Before the Court of Appeals, the school board argued that appellate court should dismiss the appeal as moot — that, as the 2002-03 school year had ended by the time the appeals court got the case, the controversy had ended.

Ordinary courts will not address cases where the controversy is over. The exception comes when “(1) the challenged action [is] in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there [is] a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again.” The Sullivans argued that the same issues could— and did — arise again and that such cases might not move through the courts before a school year ends.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals was not persuaded by the Sullivans’ arguments. Indeed, the court wrote a broadly-worded opinion, the court left little doubt that each year’s school assignment decisions were independent legal issues.

“School assignments are more than a repetition of legal issues arising under the same law; a school must consider an abundance of synergistic factors that change annually when determining student assignments for a particular year,” wrote Judge Douglas McCullough for the court. “For example, assignment plans contribute annual data on a school’s performance, diversity, enrollment, capacity, school programs, and transportation. To hold this case as anything but moot would require decisions on innumerable stale claims which would require our review of factors no longer relevant to the evolving annual assignment considerations of the school board.”

The case is Sullivan v. Wake Cty. Bd. of Educ., (03-673).

Lowrey is associate editor at Carolina Journal.