California appellate court finds school board has discretion to deny requests to place items on its meeting agenda
Mooney v. Garcia, No. H037233, 2012 WL 2387019 (Cal. Ct. App. June 26, 2012).
Abstract: The California Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District has held that a school board’s duty to allow members of the public to add items to the Board’s agenda of its routine meetings was discretionary rather than ministerial under the California Education Code governing school board meeting agendas. The Court found that the school board of the San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) did not abuse its discretion by denying placement on its agenda of a parent’s proposal to change a student-initiated “Rainbow Day,” designed to promote anti-bullying awareness for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students (LGBT), to an all-inclusive anti-bullying day.
Facts/Issues: On March 18, 2011, the Gay-Straight Alliance, a student club at Castillero Middle School, hosted “Rainbow Day” to promote anti-bullying awareness for LGBT students. Norina Mooney, a parent of a Castillero Middle School student, subsequently requested that the Board add an agenda item proposing that “Rainbow Day” be changed to an all-inclusive anti-bullying day, pursuant to California Education Code Section 35145.5. The Board denied her request, finding that it did not relate to school district business because the Board “does not direct specific activities at individual schools.” In May 2011, Mooney filed a writ petition with the trial court against Richard Garcia, SJUSD Board President, and Vincent Matthews, SJUSD Superintendent, to compel the Board to place her proposed item on the Board’s agenda. The trial court denied her petition. Mooney appealed the trial court’s decision.
Ruling/Rationale: The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision denying Mooney’s writ petition to compel the Board to add her proposed item to the Board’s agenda, finding that California Education Code Section 35145.5 did not mandate the Board to do so.
First, the appellate court reviewed the statutory language of Section 35145.5 to determine if it imposes on SJUSD a ministerial (mandated) or discretionary duty to include agenda items proposed by members of the general public. The Court focused on the language in the statute expressing the California legislature’s intent that members of the public be able to place matters “directly relating to school district business” on the agenda. The Court concluded that the words “intent” and “be able” signified that the legislature encouraged school districts to provide an opportunity to members of the public to place items on their agendas. However, the phrase “directly relating to school district business,” which was left undefined, required SJUSD to exercise judgment in determining which items met that standard.
Furthermore, the statute required the Board to adopt “reasonable regulations” that “specify reasonable procedures” to insure these opportunities were available, signaling that it was providing for the exercise of discretion by school boards, rather than mandating a purely ministerial act. In applying principles of statutory interpretation, the Court concluded that the California legislature intended to provide school districts with some level of discretion in determining which proposed agenda items met the standard set forth in the statute.
Second, the Court addressed whether SJUSD had abused its discretion in denying Mooney’s agenda item request, noting that mandate relief is unavailable unless the petitioner can demonstrate an abuse of discretion. The court stated that a “decision is an abuse of discretion only if it is ‘arbitrary, capricious, entirely lacking in evidentiary support, unlawful, or procedurally unfair.’” The Court found that the Board’s decision not to place Mooney’s item on its agenda was based on the rationale that the Board does not direct specific activities at individual schools, and “Rainbow Day”, the event in question, was student-initiated and occurred on a single day at a single school. The Court found that the decision was supported by evidence that the propriety of this isolated student club activity was inadequately related to school district business, and the Board’s denial of Mooney’s request was, thus, a valid exercise of its discretion.
Mooney also contended that her proposed agenda item was related to school district business for two other reasons: (1) SJUSD was required to approve the creation of student clubs, and this event was initiated by a student club; and (2) it related to anti-bullying. The Court rejected her first argument in finding that her agenda item did not concern the creation of a student club, but the individual activity of an existing student club. The Court rejected her second argument by pointing out that the Board reasonably viewed her proposal as a change to a club activity rather than the creation of an anti-bullying day. However, the Court expressed no opinion as to whether the Board would have had an obligation to accept an item proposing the independent creation of an anti-bullying day.
Mooney v. Garcia, H037233, 2012 WL 2387019 (Cal. Ct. App. June 26, 2012).