A federal judge has reversed a state law, making it unconstitutional for territories to vote to leave their home school district, impacting Bowling Green City Schools.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Watson made the ruling Friday. In his decision, he sided with Plain Local Schools, which filed a lawsuit in November against a neighboring village that wanted to leave the district.
In his 68-page order, he held that the fast-track transfer statute violated the Ohio Constitution’s one-subject rule, declaring the law unconstitutional and prohibiting its use.
This means the four townships that voted in August to leave Bowling Green City Schools in the 2021-22 school year will remain.
Rebecca Princehorn, with Bricker & Eckler, attended Tuesday’s school board meeting, which was held online.
The law was stricken as unconstitutional — not because of its substance but rather the process, she said.
“It stopped with the way the statute was passed,” and did not address any inequality claims, Princehorn said.
Under the Ohio Constitution, there is a one-subject rule. When this fast-track transfer statute was added into House Bill 166 (the state budget), it became unconstitutional.
“The court described this process to get the bill passed as ‘a mere rider that was tactically inserted into the must-pass budget bill, evading analysis and debate,’” she said.
That statute was removed from the budget bill and the defendants are permanently prohibited from taking further action, include approving any transfer proposals, she said.
“That does not mean the legislation could be reintroduced in the General Assembly as a standalone bill. It also does not mean the defendants can’t appeal this decision to a higher court,” Princehorn said. “What we’re in now is a limbo period.”
The transfers just stop, and that decision has been backed by Wood County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“The defendants could appeal or ask for a stay,” Princehorn said. “But this puts things in limbo and whether or not the affected townships would want to engage in any negotiations for a formal agreement, when there is the possibility the decision will be sustained, is hard to tell.”
The townships have 30 days after the decision is rendered to file an appeal.
“This is really good, right?” said board member Norm Geer.
Geer, an attorney, said he was impressed by the logic of the judge.
“I think this judge was very aware this is a very controversial case. He took some extra steps to lay out the evidence how that helped him get to the decision he rendered,” Princehorn said.
Geer said it was not discussed whether the district would recover its legal fees in fighting the case.
“He basically called them out for sneaking around,” Geer said.
According to Business Wire, in his analysis, “Judge Watson examined the law’s controversial background stating its procedural history showed it was ‘tactically crammed into the budget bill to secure its passage for fear it might not garner enough votes if it was considered on its own merits.’
“He also noted that the law ‘upends decades of safeguards protecting both the quality of education of Ohio’s schoolchildren and racial integration. Within certain townships, the statute enables the unfettered transfer of communities, or potentially even individual streets or houses, to different school districts with no regard for educational implications or resulting racial isolation.”
On Aug. 4, four of eight townships approved transferring from Bowling Green City Schools to an adjacent school district.
The four territories that had petitions pass are Center Township #2 to Eastwood Local Schools, Richfield Township in Henry County to Patrick Henry Local Schools, Jackson Township to McComb Local Schools, and Plain Township #1 to Otsego Local Schools.
The results will be forwarded to the Ohio Department of Education.
The law allowed residents to change their home district through a petition and majority approval.