The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

August 15, 2013

Whole-grade sharing battle

By Katie Dahlstrom Assistant Editor
The Clinton Herald

---- — CLINTON — The decision as to whether Easton Valley school district has to honor a whole-grade sharing agreement with the Northeast School District rests in the hands of a Clinton County judge.

Clinton County District Court Judge Gary McKenrick heard arguments from the attorneys representing the Easton Valley and Northeast school districts during a motion for summary judgment hearing Wednesday morning.

The arguments dealt with Easton Valley’s decision to void a whole-grade sharing agreement that would mean the district’s students from Miles and Sabula would attend classes at Northeast.

Before voters decided to merge the East Central and Preston school districts into Easton Valley —with its first year as a new district just getting under way — the East Central and Northeast school districts entered into a three-year, whole-grade sharing agreement in 2011. Under the agreement, which was approved shortly after a public vote on the merger was authorized, seventh- through 12th-grade East Central students attended Northeast.

When the whole-grade sharing agreement was in effect, around 115 East Central students took classes at Northeast.

The Easton Valley School Board in December decided to nullify that agreement. Northeast filed suit in February, asking a judge to order Easton Valley to honor the agreement because it was a contract entered into by one of two districts that formed the new district.

Easton Valley attorney Brian Gruhn Wednesday called the agreement a “poison pill” left from the two-year battle against authorizing a public vote on reorganizing the East Central and Preston school districts that ran all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Under the agreement, Northeast received 90 percent of East Central’s funding for each student, which would cost Easton Valley $700,000 of its $6.5 million annually.

East Central also was responsible for busing these students from Miles and Sabula to Goose Lake and had to pay for facilities, which would eat away at Easton Valley funds, Gruhn said.

Further, Gruhn said, the students who attended Northeast as part of the whole-grade sharing agreement formed bonds to Northeast and other students there, making them more likely to open enroll out of Easton Valley if the whole-grade sharing agreement was not honored.

“This is an agreement, your honor, that no school district in their right mind would voluntarily agree to do themselves. There’s nothing to gain by doing that themselves. East Central did it as a way of sabotaging that re-orgnization vote,” Gruhn said.

According to Northeast Superintendent Jim Cox, approximately 180 Easton Valley students have open enrolled to Northeast although not all students have registered. Cox estimates 160 will actually attend Northeast, with 120 of those seventh- through 12th-grade students.

Gruhn also pointed to a three-word addition relating to the parties accountable to the agreement that was made during the a special East Central meeting: “and their successors.” Gruhn said this addition also was part of East Central’s goal to make Easton Valley honor the agreement.

Gruhn argued the whole-grade sharing agreement covers government functions of Easton Valley and therefore the new district shouldn’t be bound by it.

“If you rule in favor of the plaintiff it sets a terrible precedent that a disgruntled board can sabotage a future board by agreeing to something that is very adverse to the new board,” Gruhn said.

Northeast attorney Andrew Bracken argued the vision for whole-grade sharing pre-dated the vision to merge the districts and was done to improve students’ educations rather than sabotage a new board.

“At that point in time nobody knew what the outcome of that vote would be. The Easton Valley petition appears to say that Northeast and East Central should have stopped all the work that they were doing...They should have stopped what they were doing and wait for the election,” Bracken said.

“If you always have to wait for the election where you don’t know what the outcome would be, lest you be accused of deceit, nothing gets done,” he added.

By adding “and their successors” to the contract, East Central and Northeast were putting the contract terms in black and white, Bracken said. Although, their successors would have been contractually bound regardless of the addition or omission of the phrase.

Ultimately, Easton Valley should have to honor the whole-grade sharing agreement because successors take on the assets and liabilities of their predecessors, Bracken said.

Bracken also argued McKenrick would be setting a dangerous precedent if he ruled Easton Valley did not have to honor the agreement.

“It would essentially invalidate Iowa Code 28E,” Bracken said. “Whole-grade sharing is essentially dead if one school board cannot bind a future school board to a whole-grade sharing agreement.”

If the court ordered Easton Valley to adhere to the whole-grade sharing agreement, Northeast would not make all Easton Valley students who live in Miles or Sabula attend classes at Northeast, according to Bracken. Under the formal requirements dictated by the agreement, those Easton Valley students would have to open enroll out of Northeast to attend at their home district.

McKenrick is taking the motion under consideration. Gruhn told the more than 40 East Valley community members who attended Wednesday’s hearing that the ruling would likely not come for another two months.

In the meantime, the whole-grade sharing agreement won’t be in effect.

On Tuesday, McKenrick denied a motion made by Northeast to institute an immediate injunction that would have forced Easton Valley to temporarily honor the whole-grade sharing agreement.

The case is set to go to trial in January.