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Oxford Preparatory Academy v. Chino Valley Unified School District

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

July 11, 2019

OXFORD PREPARATORY ACADEMY, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
CHINO VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.

          APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County No. CIVDS1710045, David S. Cohn, Judge. Reversed and remanded with directions.

          Theodora Oringher, Brian J. Headman, Jon-Jamison Hill; Connor, Fletcher & Hedenkamp, Edmond M. Connor, Matthew J. Fletcher, and Douglas A. Hedenkamp for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          California Charter Schools Association, Ricardo J. Soto, Julie Ashby Umansky, and Phillipa Altmann for amicus curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Law Offices of Margaret A. Chidester & Associates, Dylan E. Conroy, Steven R. Chidester, and Margaret A. Chidester for Defendants and Respondents.

          HUFFMAN, ACTING P. J.

         This appeal arising from a mandamus action in the superior court presents novel issues regarding the proper scope of judicial review of a school district's decision to deny a petition to renew a charter school. Below, the trial court concluded it had to apply an extremely deferential standard of review because it believed the governing board of the Chino Valley Unified School District (District) was performing a quasi-legislative action when it denied the renewal petition submitted by Oxford Preparatory Academy (the Academy), an existing charter school within the District. Finding that the District's decision was not arbitrary or capricious, the trial court denied the Academy's writ petition.

         On appeal, the Academy contends the trial court applied the incorrect standard of review because the District's decision was quasi-judicial in nature and, therefore, the trial court should have applied a less deferential standard of review.

         In this matter of first impression, we conclude that a school district's decision pursuant to Education Code sections 47605 and 47607[1] to deny a charter school's renewal petition is a quasi-judicial action subject to review via a petition for administrative mandamus. In considering a renewal petition, the school district is not acting in a legislative function by creating new policy, but rather performing a quasi-judicial function by applying existing standards and rules defined by state statute to determine whether the evidence presented by the charter school regarding its past performance is sufficient to satisfy those standards. The applicable statutes allow the District to deny a renewal petition only after conducting a hearing and making specific factual findings. This process bears all the hallmarks of a quasi-judicial action. Additionally, we conclude that after a charter school's initial petition is approved by a school district, the petitioner has a fundamental vested right to continue operating the charter school such that a school district's decision that deprives the petitioner of that right is subject to independent judicial review.

         The trial court did not apply these standards when reviewing the District's decision. Accordingly, we must reverse and remand for reconsideration of the Academy's writ petition under the correct standards.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2009, the District granted the Academy's initial petition to open a charter school within the District. The Academy opened in the fall of 2010 for its first school year and ultimately enrolled approximately 1, 200 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

         Near the end of its initial two-year charter, the Academy sought and obtained a five-year renewal to operate its charter school through June 30, 2017. As the end of the renewal period approached, the Academy submitted a petition for renewal to the District in January 2016. Due to concerns regarding financial irregularities and the Academy's governance structure, the District board denied the renewal petition in March 2016.

         In response, the Academy made significant changes to its structure and financial relationships to address the District's concerns. It then submitted a new renewal petition reflecting these changes in September 2016. In its 617-page petition, the Academy detailed its academic success over the past five years, relying on academic test scores and other metrics to claim it was "the top performing K-8 public school in San Bernardino County."

         As required by state law, the District held a public hearing on the renewal petition in October 2016. At its next meeting in November, the District board voted unanimously to deny the renewal petition. In a detailed 62-page resolution, the board made numerous findings of fact to support its conclusions that: (1) the Academy was "demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the... charter renewal petition. [Citation]"; (2) the "renewal petition fails to contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of eight of the fifteen required elements of a charter petition. [Citation]"; and (3) the "charter renewal petition fails to provide all of the required affirmations and assurances required to comply with California State law. [Citation.]"[2] (Boldface omitted.)

         Following the procedures defined by state law, the Academy appealed the District's decision to the San Bernardino County Office of Education, which declined to consider the appeal. The Academy then appealed to the California State Board of Education, which denied the appeal.

         The Academy then sought judicial relief. It filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court and requested a temporary restraining order to allow it to continue operation during the pendency of the lawsuit. The trial court granted the restraining order pending its final decision.

         The Academy argued that it was seeking writ relief under sections 1094.5 and 1085 of the Code of Civil Procedure. It argued the trial court should apply its independent judgment to determine whether the District's decision was supported by the weight of the evidence.

         The District responded by claiming that the trial court should instead apply a deferential standard of review limited to "an examination of whether the agency's actions were arbitrary, capricious, or entirely lacking in evidentiary support."

         At the hearing on the petition, the court focused on determining the proper standard of judicial review. As the court explained, it believed "the linchpin of this analysis is whether this is quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial." The court expressed its belief that if the District's decision was quasi-judicial and the heightened standard of review applied, it did not believe the District made the necessary findings to support its denial of the charter renewal petition. In the end, the court conceded this was a "very close case," but concluded the District's decision was quasi-legislative. Applying the deferential standard of review, the court then denied the writ petition.

         The court subsequently entered a judgment in favor of the District. The Academy appeals.

         DISCUSSION

         I. The District's ...


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