Plain Local School District Succeeds in Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of District Transfer Law

September 14, 2020 – Ulmer & Berne LLP congratulates its client, Plain Local School District, for its success in obtaining summary judgment in an important lawsuit challenging a controversial state law that allowed residents of certain Ohio communities to more easily change their assigned school district despite the risk of racial segregation among affected students.

The lawsuit, Plain Local School District Board of Education, et al. v. Mike DeWine, et al., addressed the constitutionality of Ohio Rev. Code § 3311.242 (the “Fast-Track Transfer Statute”), which allowed residents of communities containing more than one school district to vote on which district they wanted their children to attend. The Fast-Track Transfer Statute attempted to circumvent existing laws that required approval from the state board of education and that included consideration of factors such as the impact the transfer would have on students from a racial-isolation standpoint.

“When the statute went into effect, we quickly saw two communities and highly influential local leaders try to use this law to make a run around of the previous transfer law, violating the equal protection rights of our students and increasing segregation and racial divides,” said Brent May, Superintendent of Plain Local School District. “We are thrilled to have protected the fabric of our district and to continue providing equal educational opportunities for all students.”

Plain Local argued that the Fast-Track Transfer Statute violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Ohio Constitution, and federal civil rights statutes, and requested a permanent injunction against the statute’s implementation and a declaratory judgment striking the law as unconstitutional.

In a 68-page order released Friday, Judge Michael H. Watson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio held that the Fast-Track Transfer Statute violated the Ohio Constitution’s one-subject rule, declaring the law unconstitutional and permanently enjoining its use.

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.”

“This decision impacts public education throughout the state of Ohio,” said May. “Plain Local led the charge in litigating this highly controversial new law. Throughout the duration of the litigation, the Ohio School Boards, Ohio Education Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and the Plain Local Board of Education stood strong in their support of public education in Ohio. This decision continues to allow equal educational opportunities for all students, no matter their zip code.”

After two unsuccessful transfer of territory requests, one in 2004 that was denied by a state mediator, and the law in this case that has been ruled as unconstitutional, Plain Local hopes to come together with defendant Village of Hills and Dales to move the community forward. “Amanda and her team have been with us tenaciously fighting for Plain Local since 2004,” said May.

Other school districts will benefit from the decision in Plain Local’s lawsuit. “Jefferson Township is a school district near Dayton that recently received a petition to transfer nine square miles of school district territory under the Fast-Track Transfer Statute,” said Tabitha Justice, Legal Counsel for Jefferson Township Local School District. “Like Plain Local, Jefferson Township has faced multiple attempts over the years to transfer district territory to a neighboring school district despite known financial and racial segregation implications for the affected students. On behalf of Jefferson Township, I expressed thankfulness to the Plain Local Board of Education, which found itself on the front line of this important question.”

“We are very pleased to have protected the constitutional rights of Plain Local students and students across the state of Ohio,” said Ulmer Partner Amanda Martinsek. “It is our honor to fight for racial justice, equity, and the preservation of public education.”

About Ulmer’s Litigation Department

Ulmer’s Litigation Department is adept at managing complex cases for school districts involving constitutional, equal protection, due process, federal civil rights, and economic issues. The department, which is comprised of first-chair, courtroom-tested trial attorneys, focuses on delivering top-tier service to help clients achieve their best results. Its significant resources are augmented by efficient staffing practices, flexibility, and an unwavering focus on delivering excellent client service.

Earlier this year, the firm combined with nationally known trial boutique Kaufman & Company, adding to its deep bench of attorneys who appear in state and federal trial and appellate courts and before regulatory agencies throughout the country. The firm also recently received recognition as Benchmark Litigation’s “Ohio Firm of the Year” for an unprecedented fourth year in a row and for the fifth time in the last seven years.