GOLDMAN: School Board leaders slapped down by Judge Taylor

Posted at 8:59 AM, Dec 18, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. – Richmond Circuit Court judge Richard Taylor, one of the state’s most respected jurists, slapped the Richmond School Board yesterday by rejecting its argument to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the board’s legal and factual reasoning on a highly anticipated case.

The lawsuit questions the policy logic behind the board’s decisions regarding zone changes and school closings.

School Board President Jeff Bourne said the suit had no merit, and dismissed claims the decisions in question had been done despite evidence they were unfair to minority students.

The School Board concedes the statistical evidence.

But Bourne and his Board said any adverse impact on minority students was legally irrelevant even if unfortunate in terms of the ideal policy situation.

With tonight being the first and only time Richmonders will get a chance to meet the finalists for the new RPS Superintendent prior to the Board’s vote, the Taylor ruling underscores the “facts on the ground” facing the new School Chief.

The School Board denied there were any facts proving “some members of the board contravene[d] certain public policies in order to effect unlawful purposes” as the RTD’s Graham Moomaw reported this morning using Judge Taylor’s word.

After due consideration, the Judge found that the facts alleged disproved the Board’s position assuming they were true or at least could be so proven.

The suit, backed by a grass roots community group known as the Richmond Coalition for Quality Education, remains a legal long shot. As a purely legal matter, Judge Taylor’s ruling gives them, and the plaintiffs, their day in court and nothing more at this point.

Bourne correctly pointed out that Judge Taylor had not made any ruling on the merits. He promised a full court defensive press against the lawsuit.

In my view, as a lawyer, the Board’s inability to get the suit dismissed is a big surprise.

This could be merely a situation where Judge Taylor is being super-fair, which is not unusual. But at the same time, he isn’t known to waste his time, much less public dollars. He must feel there is merit to at least one legal theory posed by this challenge to the Board’s actions.

Bourne’s position will now cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in all likelihood.

But the Board has a right to defend itself, indeed it has a political and policy reason to want to prevail.

Still, the question has to be asked: Would a peaceful settlement of this matter in negotiation, not confrontation, be a win-win for everyone?

Bourne and his Board understandably bristle at claims they were not insensitive, or worse, to minority student needs.

But the Bourne majority in this case – the Board decisions under scrutiny were made in a bitterly divided 5-4 vote – may eventually realize Taylor’s decision could be lose-lose for them if it goes all the way to depositions and then a trial.

A lot of information will become public, much of it not helpful to their reputations, if not downright hurtful to future political ambitions.

The Mayor’s son is also part of the Bourne Supremacy here [sorry, couldn’t refuse the movie reference.] As a legal matter, Bourne is right, his legal position figures to prevail given the high bar the plaintiffs must clear to win. I get that.

But this case is sufficiently hot-button to be tried in the court of public opinion, not the John Marshall Courthouse. If there appears to be a possible way out of this thicket without a trial, then risk v reward theory suggests it be wise for the Board to explore it.

Paul Goldman is in no way affiliated with WTVR. His comments are his own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of Mr. Goldman’s comments.