Court affirms school merger approved by the State Board of Education

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Kings Mountain Board of Education v. North Caro-lina State Board of Education, ___ N.C. App. ___, 583 S.E.2d 629 (2003)

The Kings Mountain Board of Education appealed a decision made by the Cleveland County Board of Commissioners, and approved by the North Carolina State Board of Education, to merge three independent school systems in Cleveland County: the Cleveland County Schools, Shelby City Schools, and Kings Mountain District (KMD) Schools. The board of KMD contended that the merger was unlawful because the district lay in both Cleveland County and neighboring Gaston County and Gaston County had not approved it. The trial court concluded that KMD lay entirely within Cleveland County and af?rmed the merger. The KMD board appealed.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling.

The KMD board argued that under a 1905 law the boundaries of KMD were the same as the boundaries of the town of Kings Mountain; thus when the town annexed territory in

Gaston County, KMD expanded into that county as well. The court disagreed, noting that the power to create the boundaries of a school district lies solely with the legislature; absent an express or implied delegation of this authority, a municipality does not have such power. No delegation occurred in this case because at the time of the 1905 law the town of Kings Mountain had no power to annex territory. As the town then had no authority to expand its own boundaries, the legislature could not have intended to grant it the power to unilaterally expand the boundaries of the school district. The legislature has in the past explicitly granted municipalities such authority, but it had not done so for Kings Mountain.

The KMD board also argued that the State Board was equitably estopped from approving the merger because it had implicitly recognized the existence of KMD within Gaston County by annually certifying a number of Gaston County students in KMD under G.S. 115C-430 (which determines funding allocation among districts when there is more than one local school administrative unit in a county). The court concluded that the Board was not subject to equitable estoppel. That doctrine precludes a party from exercising a legal right when it has knowingly made a false representation to another with the intent that the other will rely and act upon the false representation. There is, however, no evidence that the State Board intended to represent to KMD that its boundaries extended into Gaston County: The annual certi?cation was made to the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, not to KMD of?cials, and it was not made pursuant to any independent determination of boundary lines.

summarized by Ingrid M. Johansen

posted Summer 2003