Opponents of a school consolidation plan in a Santa Cruz County school district did not provide evidence showing that the consolidation was not exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review, the Sixth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

The court ruled that the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District did not violate procedural requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because the law did not apply, and ruled that substantial evidence supported the district’s determination that school consolidation was categorically exempt from CEQA.

At issue was the school district’s decision, made in April 2003, to close Redwood and Quail Hollow elementary schools, and transfer the students to Boulder Creek and San Lorenzo elementary schools. Four months after making the decision, the district, in response to public concerns, retained two consultants to evaluate environmental impacts of consolidation, including traffic. The district soon filed a formal notice of exemption from CEQA but also authorized preparation of an initial study of environmental effects. The study identified potential traffic and parking problems but concluded impacts would not exceed historic levels.

A group called San Lorenzo Valley Community Advocates for Responsible Education (SLV CARE) sued the district on a number of grounds, including alleged CEQA violations. Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Irwin Joseph ruled for the school district on all claims. On appeal, the Sixth District upheld the lower court’s decision.

The appellate panel first addressed the question of whether school consolidation was a “project” under CEQA. The court ruled it was a project with two components — closure of Redwood and Quail Hollow schools, and transfer of students from those schools to the Boulder Creek and San Lorenzo campuses. The court noted that inFullerton Joint Union High School Dist. v. State Bd. of Education, (1982) 32 Cal.3d 779, the state Supreme Court ruled that the possibility that a school closure may have a significant effect “cannot be categorically rejected” and, therefore, was a project. As for the second component, the court again cited Fullerton in finding that “transferring students may ‘change bus routes and schedules, and affect traffic patterns.’”

After determining school consolidation was a project, the court turned to the issue of CEQA exemption. Section 15314 of the CEQA Guidelines provides an exemption to “minor additions to existing schools” when the addition “does not increase original student capacity by more than 25% or ten classrooms, whichever is less.”

The court found that this exemption applied because the student transfers would give Boulder Creek and San Lorenzo schools, respectively, only 2.4% and 5% more students than original design capacities. Additionally, neither school would need 10 new classrooms.

Consolidation opponents argued that the district did not follow the proper procedure for declaring the exemption because the district approved consolidation four months before filing the CEQA exemption.

The court found that the district did nothing wrong. “CEQA has no application to exemption determinations made during an agency’s preliminary review, such as the one at issue here. Since CEQA does not apply, compliance with its procedural requirements is not required,” Justice Franklin Elia wrote.

The question for the court then became whether consolidation warranted an exception to the exemption, meaning that CEQA would in fact apply. Section 15300.2 of the guidelines call for such an exception “when there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.”

Consolidation opponents argued there were unusual circumstances. They said the consolidation would increase the potential for mold in classrooms, pose a geologic hazard because of a fault near Boulder Creek school, cause problems with failing septic systems, and cause traffic, parking and emergency access problems.

The court rejected every contention: A study of mold cited by SLV CARE found that the level of mold spores in classrooms “is not considered significant.” A 1990 study of geologic dangers found that the nearby fault was no longer considered a potential earthquake source. The septic systems had been repaired. There was no evidence that traffic, circulation and parking issues were unusual.

The court concluded, “There is no evidence of unusual circumstances setting this school consolidation apart from others in the exempt class.”

The court further rejected SLV CARE’s arguments that the consolidation violated statutory provisions regarding the use of bond funds, that the district failed to provide public records and violated the state open meeting law, and that the district broke Education Code requirements mandating community involvement in decisions involving school closures and surplus property.

The Case:
San Lorenzo Valley Community Advocates for Responsible Education v. San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District, No. H028147, 06 C.D.O.S. 4490, 2006 DJDAR 6509. Filed May 26, 2006.
The Lawyers:
For SLV CARE: Gerald Bowden, Dawson, Passafuime & Bowden, (831) 438-1221.
For the school district: Timothy Volkmann, Burton, Volkmann & Schmal, (831) 425-5023.