The Texas Supreme Court has upheld the Commissioner of Education’s jurisdiction to resolve a dispute between school districts over the detachment of real property from one district in favor of another. SCOTX’s decision reversed a contrary ruling by the Waco Court of Appeals.

Mike Morath, Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas; Bellpas, Inc.; and Copperas Cove Independent School District v. Lampasas Independent School District (No. 22-0169; Februrary 16, 2024) arose from a property owner’s petition to detach about 350 acres of property planned for residential development from Lampasas ISD and annex the property to Copperas Cove ISD. The property owner desired the switch because the property was located at the far east end of Lampasas ISD, about 20 miles from the middle and high schools. Copperas Cove schools, however, were located only about six miles from the proposed development. Section 13.051, Education Code, specifies that a party seeking to detach and annex property must petition the boards of trustees of both districts. In December 2015 the property owner presented petitions to the respective boards. After it amended its petition to carve out certain property, the Lampasas ISD board held a hearing on February 1, 2016, followed by Copperas Cove’s hearing a few months later. Copperas Code approved the petition following the hearing, but Lampasas took it “under advisement.” Suffice it to say that after repeated attempts to persuade and then to compel the board to act, the property owner resorted to litigation. The trial court abated the case in June 2017 to allow the property owner to follow Lampasas ISD’s grievance procedure, but the board dismissed the grievance, still withholding a decision on the petition.

At this point the property owner gave up and appealed to the Commissioner of Education pursuant to § 13.051(j), which authorizes a de novo appeal if one board “disapproves” the petition. The statute, however, does not specify what happens when one board approves the petition and the other one simply stonewalls, as occurred here. After a “hotly contested” administrative hearing, the ALJ determined that Lampasas ISD “constructively denied” the petition by “failing to adopt a resolution within a reasonable time after the hearing.” Lampasas ISD moved for reconsideration on the basis on the basis that the statute does not impose a deadline to adopt a resolution. The ALJ withdrew its order and another hearing was scheduled for January 2018. At that hearing, Lampasas ISD raised new grounds for dismissal, chiefly that the Commissioner lost jurisdiction because he did not issue a decision within 180 days after the property owner filed the appeal, as required by §§ 7.052(b) and 13.051(j), Education Code. In response, the property owner moved for sanctions against Lampasas ISD for failing to respond to discovery. Another hearing occurred in September 2018, and the following April ALJ finally issued a proposal for decision recommending approval of the detachment and annexation. In June 2019—about 42 months after the property owner initiated the process—the Commissioner approved the petition. Lampasas sought judicial review, and the Waco Court of Appeals reversed the Commissioner’s decision on jurisdictional grounds. The property owner, Copperas Cove ISD, and the Commissioner appealed.

In an opinion by Justice Devine, SCOTX reversed the court of appeals and remanded to the court of appeals for merits review (meaning the property owner will have to wait even longer for a decision). Appellants argued that the court of appeals misapplied § 13.051(j) by holding that the Commissioner had no jurisdiction if one of the ISD board failed to adopt a resolution disapproving the petition. By contrast, § 13.051(j) authorizes an appeal to the Commissioner if a board “disapproves” of the petition, regardless of whether it adopts a resolution or not. The court thus confused § 7.057(a), which speaks broadly to the Commissioner’s jurisdiction over an appeal of a board action, with the more specific statute applying to detachment and annexation petitions. Appellants argued further that § 13.051 wouldn’t make any sense if one board could “effectively hold a veto and ‘block the detachment/annexation process by inaction.’” SCOTX agreed that “disapproval” is all that § 13.051(j) requires. The question then became whether Lampasas ISD’s stonewalling constituted “disapproval.”

The Court held that it did. Lampasas ISD argued that since § 13.051(h), while requiring a board to act on a petition “after conclusion of the hearing,” does not establish a deadline for such action. The Commissioner countered that the statute implies that the board must act within a reasonable time. SCOTX concluded that although the statute does not contain an explicit deadline for action, it can be “fairly implied” in the context of the statutory scheme that the Legislature did not intend to impose a duty on the board to act only to allow the action “to be indefinitely delayed after a hearing.” Such a construction “would effectively neuter the obligation, impose no duty to “carry [it] out, and frustrate the statute’s purpose.” In other words, the statute does not give on board a “unilateral veto.” Having determined that a “reasonable time” standard exists, the Court declined to adopt a bright-line rule, but concluded that “[sixteen] months of unexplained inaction—during which multiple board meetings occurred with [the property owner’s] petition as a scheduled item—is indisputably unreasonable.” Finally, the Court held that § 7.057(b)’s directive to the Commissioner to issue a decision within 180 days of an appeal is nonjurisdictional and “did not intend dismissal as a judicially enforceable, nonjurisdictional consequence.”

The Court strongly admonished Lampasas ISD’s attempt, after years of fighting, to concoct a “post hoc” claim that a typo in the property owner’s petition created a big enough difference to invalidate the owner’s case that the two boards reached a “split decision.” Instead of simply asking the owner to correct the typo, Lampasas ISD “chose to play a game of procedural ‘gotcha’ for no apparent purpose other than to obstruct a statutory right and prevent any review on the merits. These types of actions undermine the people’s trust in government and waste limited governmental resources, including taxpayer dollars and the judiciary’s time.” We could not have said it better ourselves, except to add that Lampasas ISD’s actions can only be explained in terms of bad faith.

This case fires a well-deserved shot across the bow of government entities who attempt to avoid making a decision by tying things up in a procedural labyrinth. What should not get lost here as how much the property owner in this case has lost by Lampasas ISD’s actions. A private citizen should not be dragged through years of litigation simply for following a legislatively-prescribed process designed, among other purposes, to rationalize school district boundaries to enhance the use and development of real property. There is no excuse for the way the ISD treated the property owner, and we only wish that the Commissioner had power to sanction the board for abuse of process.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This