Jackson County District Court Judge Mary E. Howes has issued a summary judgment on behalf of the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, ruling it did not exceed its authority in approving a public vote on whether to merge the Preston and East Central school districts.

The AEA took the action approving the vote at an approximate four-hour long public hearing held on June 16, 2010 at the Ohnward Center in Maquoketa.  However, the East Central District legally challenged the AEA decision, maintaining the agency did not fulfill its obligations under Iowa Code to determine if the new merged district would have sufficient viability before permitting a vote to occur.

Howes made her ruling in a decision dated Aug. 19, but released Monday.

Although there is an upcoming Sept. 13 election, the Jackson County Auditor’s office said Tuesday that 32 days’ notice is required prior to an election for  ballot changes, and that current ballots have already been printed. The Auditor’s Office said the earliest the merger vote could occur is the first Tuesday of February 2012.

Also, under Iowa Code the East Central District has 30 days to appeal Howes’ decision. East Central School District Superintendent Neil Gray said Monday the school board will meet later this week to discuss whether to appeal Howes’ ruling.  

Included among the issues addressed in Howes’decision are:

• The East Central District maintained the AEA did not “adequately develop detailed studies and surveys” for “the purpose of providing for the reorganization of school districts.”

Howes ruled the AEA’s Reorganization Plan, created in August of 1986 and revised in August of 2001, was sufficient because no school reorganizations within the AEA’s service area have occurred since 2001.

• East Central argued the petition for a merger was approved “without any substantial discussion and without any deliberation on the merits of the Petition.”

Howes responded that there is no minimum time for board consideration and that AEA board members had relevant materials prior to the June 16, 2010 public hearing. Her ruling further shares the issue of merging the two districts had occurred during the past decade, and that the public hearing lasted four hours.

• East Central maintained the AEA did not consult with the Department of Education regarding surveys and plans.  

In May of 2010 the Iowa Department of  Education issued a report which termed the merger effort “inappropriate” because East Central was already engaged in grade sharing negotiations with Northeast.  

The report also encouraged East Central to pursue whole grade sharing with Northeast due to  Preston’s “historic reluctance” to merge.

Howes termed the use of the word “inappropriate” as an opinion and that whole grade sharing had not been initiated between East Central and Northeast at the time of the public hearing.  Although the May of 2010 Department of Education report stated only a merger of the Preston, East Central and Northeast districts offered the “most long-term viability,” Howes said the petition presented to the AEA was only to merge East Central and Preston.

However, Howes ruled the petition “made sense” because the new merged district would be the same size as Northeast and reflected the connected relationship between East Central and Preston since 1988.

Not reflected in Howes’ 13-page report was any reference to an incident which occurred at the June 16, 2010 Maquoketa hearing just prior to the approval of a public vote on merger.   

AEA Board members Jeanita Harris and Dick Wold each addressed the 500-plus member audience for several minutes.

Each expressed their appreciation to the audience for their interest in the issue but also shared the board had an important job to do: Its members must carefully consider the evidence presented by both sides, and more time was necessary to do that. Harris moved and Wold seconded the motion to reconvene at a later date.

As board members discussed an appropriate date to meet the following week, members of the audience began to leave, audibly criticizing the AEA for not  immediately voting on the issue.

Then, Harris withdrew her motion, and Wold, his second, and the board voted to approve the petition, without further discussion, permitting a public vote on the issue to be scheduled.

However, Howes said Tuesday the statements regarding the request for more time were not a factor in her decision.

 “My job in the case is limited,” said Howes. “To make sure all parties followed Iowa Code Chapter 275.

 “As I stated in my ruling, ‘the Court can only interfere in such local legislative matters when it appears an education agency has exceeded its jurisdiction or has taken an action that is arbitrary, unreasonable, or unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.’”

Subsequently, since the start of East Central’s legal challenge, the district entered into a three-year grade sharing agreement with Northeast, through which EC seventh- through 12th-graders attend classes at the Northeast campus. Preston has also entered into a two-year 28E agreement with the Maquoketa District, through which Preston high school students can choose from a selection of 21 classes that can be taken at Maquoketa.

The impact of Howes’ decision on these, and other related developments, will need to be determined.

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