When School Board Members Violate the Law
February 28, 2006
What happens when members of a school board refuse to follow their legal duties? Can one member of the school board, after being outvoted by the lawless members, sue in federal court?
In general, one school board member should not be allowed to bring a political squabble into federal court. But when the other members of the school board use their power to create lawlessness, then courts should recognized an exception to this rule. Sadly, in Nelson v. Jamestown Board of Education (here) (see also Giacalone), the federal district court refused to recognize such an exception. (Disclosure: I reviewed the pleadings and motions in this case but received no compensation.) Here's some background.
Under federal law, local schools must provide an individualized plan (called IEPs) for children with special needs. Local schools that do not comply with the law are subject to suit. Several members of the Jamestown School Board decided that reviewing IEPs was too much work. They therefore quite reviewing the reports.
Dr. Dorothy Nelson felt this was wrong, and ran on a platform of reform: She would ensure that children with special needs were not ignored. After Dr. Nelson was elected, she reviewed the reports, which she often found failed to meet minimum federal guidelines.
How did the other members of the school board react? They passed a resolution reading that "no board member is authorized to act on behalf of the Board to read and review individual Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) of District students." Yes, you read that correctly: A majority of the school board passed a regulation preventing other members of the school board from doing their job.
Dr. Nelson sued under Section 1983 arguing that the other members of the school board enacted the resolution to punish her for engaging in protected speech. In sum, the school board literally prevented Dr. Nelson from serving in her representative capacity, since it's not possible to do one's job without access to information.
The district court denied her relief, writing that "the facts [Nelson] has alleged them do not support" her claim that "she has been prevented from representing the interests of her constituents." This is pretty weak reasoning.
Dr. Nelson is literally prevented from "representing the interests of her constituents" since she doesn't have access to the IEPs. How can she know whether children with special needs are having those needs met? How can she lobby represent parents whose children are developmentally disabled? It's impossible for her to serve such constituents, because she doesn't know what the IEPs require.
I recognize that federal courts are (and should be!) reluctant to interject themselves into intra-governmental arguments. But when a majority of a political body literally prevents another elected member from doing her job, courts should not refuse to step in. There is a difference between judicial restraint and judicial abdication. Here, the judge, failing to heed Edmund Burke's call, decided that in the presence of evil, he would do nothing.