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Lead Education Foundation v. Alabama Education Association

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 8, 2019

LEAD EDUCATION FOUNDATION,
v.
ALABAMA EDUCATION ASSOCIATION et al. Mac Buttram et al.
v.
Alabama Education Association et al. Ed Richardson, Interim State Superintendent of Education,
v.
Alabama Education Association et al.

         Rehearing Denied May 17, 2019.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Appeals from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-18-107)

          William H. Webster and Kayla W. Frisby of Webster, Henry, Bradwell, Cohan, Speagle & DeShazo, P.C., Montgomery, for appellant Lead Education Foundation.

          Aaron G. McLeod, Matthew Jackson, and Michael Berson of Adams & Reese LLP, Birmingham, for appellants Mac Buttram et al.

          Dorman Walker and G. Lane Knight of Balch & Bingham LLP, Montgomery, for Ed Richardson, Interim State Superintendent of Education.

          Theron Stokes, Clint Daughtrey, and Tamika Reed, Alabama Education Association, Montgomery; Monica L. Arringston of Arrington & Arrington, Montgomery; and Victoria D. Relf of The Relf Law Firm, LLC, Montgomery, for appellees.

         BOLIN, Justice.

         Alabama Public Charter School Commission members Mac Buttram, Charles Jackson, Lisa Williams, Melinda McLendon, Terri Tomlinson, Tommy Ledbetter, Melissa Kay McInnis, Chad Fincher, Henry Nelson, and Ibrahim Lee (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the Commission members"); LEAD Education Foundation ("LEAD"); and Ed Richardson, former interim State Superintendent of Education[1] (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the defendants"), separately appeal from a summary judgment entered in favor of the Alabama Education Association ("the AEA"), Vicky Holloway, and Felicia Fleming (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the plaintiffs"). The defendants also challenge on appeal the circuit court's denial of their motions to dismiss and/or for a summary judgment.

         I. Facts

         In December 2017, LEAD submitted an application to the Alabama Public Charter School Commission ("the Commission"), established pursuant to the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, § 16-6F-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 ("the ASCSOA"), seeking to open a public charter school beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.[2] During a two-month evaluation period, the Commission investigated LEAD's capability to open and to operate

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as a public charter school. The Commission contracted with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers ("NACSA"), which provided a three-member panel to evaluate and to make recommendations on LEAD's application. In a report issued on January 19, 2018, NACSA's panel noted some areas that needed improvement and requested additional information. The NACSA report, however, also provided that "[t]he authority and responsibility to decide whether to approve or deny each application rests with the members of the Commission." In the weeks following the panel's report, LEAD provided the requested information and made other improvements as suggested by NACSA.

         On February 12, 2018, the Commission conducted an open meeting, with seven out of nine members present.[3] At the meeting, LEAD presented testimony and documentary evidence and answered the Commission's questions regarding matters related to the NACSA report and other concerns. Neither Holloway, Fleming, nor an AEA representative was present at the meeting, and no private citizens voiced any opposition to LEAD's application. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Commission voted 5-1 to approve LEAD's application.[4] On March 15, 2018, the Commission adopted a resolution approving LEAD's application.

         II. Procedural History

         On March 5, 2018, the plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commission members; (2) Ed Richardson, then the interim State Superintendent of Education; and (3) LEAD, a nonprofit organization formed to establish a public charter school in Montgomery County. The AEA consists of school teachers, principals, administrative personnel, and other employees. Holloway and Fleming are citizens and taxpayers of both Montgomery County and the State of Alabama and are employees of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

         The five-count complaint sought, among other things, to invalidate the Commission's 5-1 decision at its February 12, 2018, meeting to approve LEAD's application to open a public charter school for the 2018-2019 school year. The plaintiffs set forth the following claims:

Count I: The Commission violated the majority-vote requirement of the ASCSOA. Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that a majority vote of the body of the Commission comprised of a total of 11 members was necessary for the passage of an action authorizing the charter school as required by § 16-6F-6(c)(3) and (9), Ala. Code 1975.
Count II: The Commission violated the Open Meetings Act, § 36-25A-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, by failing to adhere to the Commission's adopted parliamentary procedures, which the plaintiffs alleged required a vote by a "majority of the entire commission" pursuant to § § 36-25A-5(a) and -9, Ala. Code 1975.
Count III: The Commission violated the ASCSOA by failing to seat a local school-board member on the Commission

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as required by § 16-6F-6(c)(4), Ala. Code 1975.

Count IV: The Commission violated the ASCSOA by failing to fulfill its ministerial duty to reject the application by "declining to approve weak or inadequate charter applications" as set forth in § 16-6F-6(p)(3), Ala. Code 1975. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that, if the Commission's 5-1 vote was found to have legal effect, it was nonetheless "arbitrary and capricious" for the Commission to approve LEAD's application, which was contrary to the recommendation of NACSA.
Count V: The plaintiffs argued that Richardson and anyone in his employ or acting in concert with him should be prevented from disbursing any funds or property to LEAD Academy because, they said, it is not a lawfully authorized charter school.

         In their complaint, the plaintiffs also sought the following relief:

"(a) ... a declaratory judgment and injunction declaring that the application of the LEAD Education Foundation was not approved by the purported 5-1 vote at the February [12], 2018, meeting of the Commission;
"(b) ... a declaratory judgment and injunction forbidding the Commission, and all those acting in conjunction with [it], from approving future applications with less than six affirmative votes, a majority of the entire [C]ommission;
"(c) ... a judgment declaring that approval of the LEAD Education Foundation application was a per se violation of the ASCSOA due to its being weak and inadequate both as found by the Commission's own reviewer, a national expert, and as a matter of law and prohibiting the Commission from attempting to adopt the same application without substantial modifications in the future;
"(d) ... a judgment declaring that the Commission was not duly constituted when evaluating the LEAD Education Foundation application, making all actions on the application after its receipt void ab initio ;
"(e) ... writs of mandamus and prohibition, as well as an injunction to Defendant Richardson from disbursing any public funds or transferring any public property to LEAD Academy;
"(f) ... injunctions, as well as writs of mandamus and prohibition, to prevent LEAD Education Foundation and all other defendants from taking any further action as though LEAD Academy were a duly-authorized charter school, including, but not limited to, advertising as an authorized charter school, enrolling students, or seeking to enforce any right to preferred purchase of real property held by a public school system; and
"(g) ... provide such other relief as the [circuit court] deems appropriate."

         The plaintiffs attached evidentiary materials, including online articles from a local newspaper and television station and NACSA's "Charter School Application Recommendation Report 2018."

         Following a March 7, 2018, hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order, Judge J.R. Gaines entered an order setting motion deadlines and a hearing for April 30. The order also limited LEAD from participating in certain activities related to formation of LEAD Academy pending the court's ruling following the April 30 hearing. Specifically, the circuit court ordered:

"LEAD Education Foundation may advertise, recruit and solicit applications for filling any and all staff positions for LEAD Academy; provided, however, that no contracts of employment for

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LEAD Academy may be entered into, and no public funds obligated or expended for these activities....

"... LEAD Education Foundation may advertise, solicit applications, and register students for LEAD Academy; provided, however, that no students may be enrolled in LEAD Academy, and no public funds ...

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