A Franklin County judge ruled that a group of families can legally transfer their property from the Jefferson Twp. school district to the Valley View district — the latest step in an ongoing legal challenge.
In February, the state school board had voted to reject the transfer, but Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark A. Serrott last Friday reversed that decision in an administrative appeal, saying the board’s decision was “not based on reliable, probative and substantial evidence.”
Tabitha Justice, the attorney representing Jefferson Twp. schools, said the district is disappointed in the court’s decision, but has not yet decided whether to appeal.
“The trial court judge improperly second-guessed the decision of the elected State Board of Education and improperly placed the burden of proof on the district when that burden is supposed to be on the persons seeking to transfer the territory,” Justice said.
Christopher Conard, one of the attorneys for the families, said the Ohio Department of Education has 30 days to appeal to the 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus. He and fellow attorney Merle Wilberding said it is unclear whether the students in the affected area can immediately enroll in Valley View schools, given the possibility of an appeal.
“We believe the hearing officer who heard the case and considered all the evidence reached the legally correct decision, and the judge’s decision confirmed the hearing officer’s decision was legally correct,” Conard and Wilberding said in an email.
In their initial request, the petitioning parents had cited dissatisfaction with Jefferson Twp. schools, pointing to poor state report card grades and a lack of agricultural classes and 4H programs that Valley View has, among other issues.
A hearing officer from the Ohio Department of Education agreed, recommending to the state board that the transfer be approved. But the board voted 10-7 to reject the transfer. Board members questioned the impact on the racial makeup of the districts, the fairness of the financial loss to Jefferson, and a few other issues.
Serrott said the issue of the appeal was whether the state board’s decision was supported by evidence. He cited the board’s meeting minutes as evidence that the board focused on the issues above and “ignored the evidence found by the hearing officer supporting the transfer and instead relied on speculation and non-statutory factors in its decision.”
Specifically, he wrote that concerns over racial segregation were refuted by 2018 hearing testimony from Jefferson Superintendent Richard Gates that the impact would be minimal. And Serrott said Jefferson “presented no evidence or testimony to support their claim” that they would lose over $450,000 per year in tax revenue if the transfer occurred.
Justice disputed that claim.
“The board presented the testimony of the school treasurer that the district would sustain a loss of 14% of property tax revenues,” she said. “We fail to understand how anyone can possibly conclude that a school district and its students would not be harmed by that large of a loss.”
The transfer would move almost 9 square miles of land from Jefferson to Valley View, but the hearing report said only four or five students in that area attended Jefferson schools in 2018-19. The families’ attorneys said some other students currently attending private schools might go to Valley View, if the transfer was approved.
Valley View, like a slight majority of Montgomery County districts, does not offer open enrollment that would allow students in adjacent school districts to attend without transferring their property.
State school board member Linda Haycock in February called it “a crime” if Jefferson would lose $450,000 in property tax revenue, and any educational programming the money paid for, for the benefit of a few students.
Since the parents’ initial filing, Jefferson has had significant problems with teacher staffing, and Valley View has started budget cuts, including teaching positions, after voters rejected a tax levy.
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