Rosslyn Farms ruling could let municipalities seek new school districts

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An Allegheny County judge's decision allowing a Western Pennsylvania borough to take the first step toward seceding from its school district could create a chaotic new environment -- including "district shopping" and "recruitment" of municipalities, one lawyer said.

Last month, Common Pleas Court Judge David N. Wecht ruled a water boundary does not wash away the contiguity of two neighboring boroughs -- an issue of first impression that was lodged as a procedural hurdle in Rosslyn Farms borough's petition to leave Carlynton School District and join Chartiers Valley School District.

Judge Wecht's decision moved the issue to the state Department of Education, which will decide on the petition's merits, absent an appeal.

If approved, the case could lead other boroughs to do "a lot of district shopping," Carlynton's lawyer said.

Ira Weiss, who has been practicing municipal law for close to four decades, said once a precedent is established for district switching, residents will think they can change districts "just because they want to."

The lawyer representing the breakaway borough rejected that assertion, saying he did not think this case would start a trend and it is unlikely a community looking to secede could do so on a whim.

Mr. Weiss, however, said he could foresee the districts cooperating with the prospective boroughs, though, and likened the process to a school recruiting athletes. This would be especially true in bigger districts in Allegheny County, some with as many as 14 boroughs, he said, whereas Carlynton has only three.

But Rosslyn Farms' attorney disagreed, noting the "massive undertaking" set forth by the petitioners in "In re Establishment of Independent School District Consisting of the Borough of Rosslyn Farms."

Anthony C. Mengine of Chiurazzi & Mengine pointed to the 291 signatures -- about 80 percent of taxable residents -- on a 561-page petition that took two years to complete.

"There is an incredible amount of work you need to do to get to this point," Mr. Mengine said.

"This isn't just something where a bunch of residents can say 'Hey, let's get out of this school district.' "

If the petition is approved by state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, Mr. Mengine said he did not think it would, nor did he hope it would, somehow start a trend of boroughs shopping for new school districts.

"For people to do this casually is almost impossible," he added.

Mr. Mengine said the driving force behind Rosslyn Farm's petition to secede was the quality of education at Chartiers Valley.

"[The petitioners] felt they can do better at Chartiers Valley," Mr. Mengine said. "They also respect the law. They only want to do what the law allows [for]. There's a law out there that allows [for] this."

Mr. Weiss had until tomorrow to appeal Judge Wecht's Aug. 15 ruling, but said he did not plan on appealing the ruling. Therefore, the case could be on Mr. Tomalis' desk this month.

Mr. Weiss demurred on the appeal because, he said, the district's resources are better directed at making the case to the state.

As for the trial court, Judge Wecht said the court was limited to ensuring the petition met its procedural requirements. According to Judge Wecht, the petition must set forth: the signatures reflected the majority of inhabitants, that the petitioners correctly described the borough's boundaries, the reason for the requested transfer and the name of the prospective school district.

At a July 15 hearing, both parties agreed the sole issue for Judge Wecht to decide was whether Rosslyn Farms was contiguous with Chartiers Valley.

Although Rosslyn Farms is separated from Chartiers Valley by Chartiers Creek, Judge Wecht said such a boundary does not affect the creation of legislative districts and, therefore, the same could be argued in creating school districts.

The Commonwealth Court decided in April to adopt the definition of contiguous as used in legislative districts for that in a school district dispute. Therefore, the decision in "In re Petition for Formation of Independent School District" applied in Rosslyn Farms' case, Judge Wecht said.

In Riegelsville, the court defined a contiguous district as "one in which a person can go from any point within the district to any other point (within the district) without leaving the district."

The petitioners noted that such a definition is "particularly relevant inasmuch as there are legislative districts that contain communities separated by water boundaries that may be traversed only by going outside the district," Judge Wecht said.

The petitioners also pointed out that one cannot get from Rosslyn Farms to Crafton (which is in the Carlynton School District) without either crossing Chartiers Creek -- the same body of water separating Rosslyn Farms from Chartiers Valley School District.

"[E]ither a water boundary cannot matter or the Carlynton School District should not exist," Judge Wecht said.

Judge Wecht concluded his seven-page opinion by spelling out several "vexing questions" arising from the case on which the court lacked jurisdiction.

He said it might be reasonably argued that a body of water between two areas is too large for them to be contiguous and share a school district.

"Suppose, for example, that two areas are separated by the Allegheny or Monongahela River," he said. "Can they still be contiguous?"

That would be for the state to figure out, he said.

Mr. Weiss said the decision could have lasting implications, adding "this case deserves watching."

In his 38 years practicing municipal law, Mr. Weiss said he has only seen one case in Allegheny County where a town attempted to secede from a school district and he noted that attempt failed.

He pointed to the "reasonably new" high school and "great quality" education as indicators of Carlynton as a thriving school district. He said it was a cohesive district that it is currently "financially strong" with no debt.

But that could change if Rosslyn Farms successfully jumps ship.

Such a ruling, Mr. Weiss said, would be "problematic" because there are questions about whether the remaining areas in Carlynton School District -- Crafton and Carnegie -- could financially support the district on their own.

But Mr. Mengine said it was never the intention of Rosslyn Farms to leave Carlynton in "financial disarray." He said he hoped the district would be able to tap into state funds to make up for any losses it would sustain in the case of Rosslyn Farms' departure.

"It's obvious they're going to lose some dollars. That's clear. That's where the argument becomes complex," he said.

"In the end, we would want them to be left in a good financial state if we did in fact succeed."

He said the petitioners did not want their effort to be construed as a criticism of Carlynton but noted the "trend has been downward for Carlynton whereas it's been upward for Chartiers Valley."

In front of Judge Wecht, Carlynton objected to the petition because it was not verified. But Judge Wecht said that was not a reason to find the petition insufficient as a matter of law, adding the petitioners would need to obtain a verification for it to pass.

If Mr. Tomalis approves the petition, Judge Wecht said in the court's order, the next hearing would be scheduled before the motions judge in Allegheny County civil court, but not necessarily Judge Wecht himself.

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