Two neighboring school districts in adjacent counties have been litigating a student poaching case for over a decade. The Court of Appeals, in Warren Consolidated School District v School District of the City of Hazel Park (Case No. 354240, December 2, 2021) recently decided to give Warren Con. an opportunity to take a third bite at the apple.
The case arose from a program initiated by Hazel Park pursuant to which it enrolled students who lived in the Warren Con district without permission and counted them in membership. Warren Con sued in 2011, alleging Hazel Park had violated the State School Aid Act (SSAA). Ultimately, the trial court ruled in Hazel Park’s favor on the procedural grounds Warren Con had failed to exhaust administrative remedies available through the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). Warren Con did not appeal. Instead, it undertook to exhaust administrative remedies. This gambit was also unsuccessful. MDE concluded Warren Con lacked standing to challenge Hazel Park’s pupil count. MDE also refused to issue a declaration Hazel Park had violated the SSAA and determined it lacked authority to award Warren Con monetary relief in any case.
Warren Con responded to MDE’s decision by filing a new lawsuit in 2017. However, the 2017 lawsuit was again dismissed on procedural grounds because Warren Con had not completed the exhaustion of administrative remedies by appealing to the State Superintendent. Warren Con duly appealed to the State Superintendent, who affirmed MDE’s decision.
Warren Con then filed a third lawsuit in 2020, like the first two. However, the trial court dismissed this 2020 lawsuit on procedural grounds because Warren Con had not appealed the State Superintendent’s decision and, therefore, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Warren Con appealed to the Court of Appeals and, at the last possible minute, asserted it was not required to appeal the State Superintendent’s decision because that decision was not issued in a “contested case,” i.e., a case with a hearing. The Court of Appeals agreed, notwithstanding the timing of Warren Con’s successful argument, and remanded the case for further consideration by the trial court.
The Court of Appeals ruling suggests suggests the trial court may have no option except to rule on the merits of Warren Con's complaint. If so, we may actually find out what a school district can do when another school district allegedly poaches its students in a manner inconsistent with the SSAA. Stay tuned.