Superior Court rules State Board of Education abused its authority in overturning local charter denials
CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance and Napa Valley USD prevail in litigation affirming local educational agencies have primary discretion over charter approvals
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (June 30, 2023) – In a resounding victory for local control and the integrity of the Assembly Bill 1505 charter reform law, a California Superior Court found on June 29 that the State Board of Education (SBE) abused its authority in overturning charter denials issued by the Napa Valley Unified School District and the Napa Valley County Office of Education. In her ruling, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang issued a judgment granting the writs of mandate requested by Napa Valley USD and CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance against the SBE.
“It is reassuring to see the court validate the agreements contained in the Charter Schools Act and repudiate the abuse of discretion by the State Board of Education that threatened to shatter the consensus obtained through AB 1505,” said CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “The judgment makes clear that both the local school district and the county office of education exercised due diligence and complied with all protocols before denying the Mayacamas Charter petition and that SBE overreached in reversing those decisions.”
In November 2022, Napa Valley USD filed litigation on the grounds that SBE’s decision to authorize the Mayacamas Charter conflicted with AB 1505, a charter reform bill signed into law in October 2019. CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance filed a similar lawsuit in January 2023 with the intent of representing the statewide interest of governing boards who serve as local charter authorizers. AB 1505 was the subject of extended negotiations between legislators, the Governor’s office, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, labor unions, state education associations, parent groups, and supporters and critics of charter schools. The final agreement established a new framework for transparency and delegation of authority related to charter schools, including the charter authorization and appeal process.
This judgment reinforces AB 1505 and sets aside a decision by the SBE granting the appeal and authorizing the Mayacamas Charter petition that had been denied previously by both Napa Valley USD and Napa COE. Through their action authorizing the charter, the SBE violated the Charter Schools Act and undermined the Legislature’s express intent to give broad discretion over the creation of charter schools to the local educational agencies best positioned to make decisions regarding new public schools in their own communities.
Judge Chang determined that the SBE did not properly exercise its discretion in reversing the prior determinations by the Napa Valley USD and Napa COE. The court declined to adopt the SBE’s determination that that the district’s process for hearing the charter petition was unfair, finding that the district did not demonstrate any bias in the proceedings. The district was presumed to be free from bias under the law. Further, to the extent that the district’s board members made negative comments about the charter school during the proceedings, such comments were not evidence of bias. Indeed, legislative intent regarding AB 1505 demonstrates that the board was required to form opinions about the charter school as part of the process of hearing the petition. Such opinions were not evidence of bias, nor was the fact that the district’s decision was based on protecting the fiscal health of the district.
The court also disagreed with the SBE’s determination that Napa COE failed to make an adequate showing regarding the community interest criteria under the Charter Schools Act and that its finding was “entirely lacking in evidentiary support.” The court found evidentiary support for the county’s determination and that the parties provided ample evidence of pre-existing financial distress and potential negative fiscal impacts from the opening of the charter school. Even if the SBE could have reasonably reached a different conclusion on the evidence, it was required to defer to the county office’s decision under the abuse of discretion standard of review because the county office’s determination was also reasonable.
Judge Chang’s decision was further clarified by the Legislature through Senate Bill 114, the education trailer billed that passed on June 27 and is awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. SB 114 states that the SBE may reverse the charter authorization decision of a local educational agency “only upon a determination that there was an abuse of discretion by each of the governing board of the school district and the county board of education. Abuse of discretion is the most deferential standard of review, under which the state board must give deference to the decisions of the governing board of the school district and the county board of education to deny the petition.”
As set forth above, in her ruling, Judge Chang stated that Napa Valley USD and Napa COE did not abuse their discretion, demonstrated no evidence of bias and complied with the grounds for denying a charter petition as indicated in AB 1505. A key provision of this bipartisan legislation was that local authorizers — both school districts and county offices of education — could more closely consider the impact of a charter school on a local community and tailor their decision-making processes regarding petitions and renewals accordingly. The SBE undermined this agreed-upon principle, overstepped its authority and sidestepped the law in reversing the denials of the petition by the local governing boards.
CSBA is a nonprofit association representing nearly 1,000 PreK-12 school districts
and county offices of education throughout California.