Fourth District Finds School District’s Determination that Exemption Applied to School Closures was Not Supported by Substantial Evidence

Save Our Schools v. Barstow Unified School District Board of Education (Sept. 2, 2015) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. E060759.

Barstow Unified School District approved closing two of its elementary schools and transferring those students to other “receptor” schools in the District, in order to meet its financial obligations in future school years. The Board estimated the closures would save the District $600,000 annually. The District determined the closures and transfers were exempt from CEQA because they fell within the categorical exemption for “minor additions” to schools, pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21080.18 and CEQA Guidelines section 15314. The court found the District could not have properly determined an exemption applied because it did not have the necessary statistics before it when making that decision.

Under Guidelines section 15314, school closures and student transfers resulting in “minor additions to existing schools” are categorically exempt from CEQA review where the transfer of students does not increase “original student capacity” of a receptor school by (1) more than 25% or (2) ten classrooms, whichever is less. The court noted that the record did not contain figures for the “original student capacity” or total enrollment before transfers at any of the receptor schools. Thus, it was impossible to determine whether the transfers would increase that capacity beyond the levels allowed under the exemption.

At the meeting to address the proposed closures and transfers, the District board members and superintendent assumed there would be more than sufficient enrollment capacity at the receptor schools to absorb the transfers, but the board did not indicate that it would limit the number of transfers in order to keep enrollment below levels allowed by the exemption.

The court directed the District to void its determination that the closures and transfers were exempt, and reconsider the applicability of the minor additions exemption or any other exemption. Though the schools had already been closed, the court found the case was not moot, as the District (should it find the exemption did not apply) could either reopen the schools or take steps to mitigate any adverse impacts of the closures and transfers.