In a unanimous decision on July 11, the California Supreme Court held that legislative rules for revoking a school’s charter do not violate either federal or state constitutional due process. Today’s Fresh Start Inc. v. Los Angeles County Office of Educ. (7/11/13, No. S195852). The Court found that a charter school failed to establish that the revocation procedures as set forth in Education Code section 47607 denied it the opportunity to be heard “at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner” by a decision maker without financial or other bias.
The Los Angeles County Board of Education initially approved a charter for Today’s Fresh Start in 2003. In 2007, after concerns were raised about the school’s compliance with the law in multiple areas, the Board notified Today’s Fresh Start that it would be initiating an investigation. The investigation was conducted by staff from the County Office of Education, including the County Superintendent of Schools. Following the investigation, the County Office of Education issued a report and provided Today’s Fresh Start with a list of required corrective actions.
The Board held two meetings to review the results of the investigation and the charter school’s responses to the corrective action plan. Upon the recommendation of the County Superintendent, the Board gave notice of its intent to revoke the charter and scheduled a public hearing. Although no evidence was formally introduced during the hearing, both Today’s Fresh Start and the County Office of Education were given an opportunity to present and respond to issues raised by the other party. Counsel for Today’s Fresh Start objected that the proceedings violated due process on the grounds that County staff, including the attorney for the County and the Superintendent, acted not only as investigators but as advisors to the Board. Despite the objections, the Board voted to revoke the charter.
Today’s Fresh Start sued in state court to pursue their due process claims. The trial court ruled in favor of the charter school, finding that the revocation procedures set forth in the Education Code violated the charter’s right to due process. However, the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court, finding no violation of the principles of due process.
Affirming the appellate court’s decision, the Supreme Court rejected the charter school’s contention that it was not afforded a fair tribunal “free of bias for or against a party” because the County Office of Education had an incentive to revoke charters to maximize funding available to its own schools. Today’s Fresh Start did not show any incentive on the part of the County Board to disfavor the charter school in preference for schools operated by the County Office, the Court stated. Additionally, it observed that general county-wide charters such as that received by Today’s Fresh Start “are designed by the legislature not to compete with services provided by county offices of education, but instead to complement them.”
The Court also refused to accept the charter’s school argument that participation by County Office staff in investigating and then offering a recommendation for revocation “based on the fruits of that investigation” yielded the sort of bias that the constitutional due process clause was designed to prohibit. Merely because a county office is responsible for investigating possible violations of a charter does not prevent its governing board from neutrally evaluating evidence along with any arguments made by the charter school, the Court pointed out.
Finally, the Court found that neither Education Code section 47607 nor constitutional due process required the County Board to introduce at public hearing the evidence on which it rested its ultimate revocation decision. It concluded that Today’s Fresh Start was given the opportunity to be heard “at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner,” noting that the charter school had received copies of the “roughly 500 pages of materials reflecting the County Office's investigation upon which the County Board relied.” Additionally, the County Office's Corrective Action Plan identified and gave notice to the charter school of 53 specific problems with the school's operations, on matters ranging from student safety to the administration of state tests.
According to the Court, such notice was sufficient to afford Today's Fresh Start the opportunity to prepare and submit at the hearing a written rebuttal addressing every alleged problem, whether material or not. “Today's Fresh Start was told in detail the ways in which its performance was perceived as wanting; that it sharply disagreed with that assessment does not diminish either the notice it had or its opportunity to respond.”
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F3 NewsFlash prepared by Melanie Petersen and John Norlin.
Melanie is a partner in the F3 San Diego office.
John is Special Counsel in the F3 San Diego office.
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