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The California Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed and remanded a case involving the closure of two public schools in the Barstow Unified School District (BUSD). In Save Our Schools v. Barstow Unified School Dist., 2015 Cal.App.Unpub. LEXIS 4926, Save Our Schools (SOS) sued BUSD over the closure of two schools. BUSD closed the schools in 2013 after years of declining student enrollment in the school district. BUSD concluded its decision to close the schools was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15314 (categorical exemption for minor additions to existing schools) and Public Resources Code section 21080.18 (statutory exemption for school closures if impacts of closure are otherwise exempt from CEQA).

Following the closures, SOS petitioned alleging that insufficient evidence supported the CEQA exemptions. The superior court denied their petition, but the court of appeal agreed with SOS and reversed.

As defined in CEQA Guidelines section 15314, a minor addition to a school is defined as: (1) the addition of 10 of fewer classrooms; or (2) an increase in original student capacity of 25 percent or less. “Original student capacity” means the school’s physical space for housing students, or number of students that can be physically accommodated before the transfer.  The court found that the administrative record failed to disclose the “[o]riginal student capacity” at any of the receptor schools.  The court concluded it was possible some of the receptor schools were near capacity at the time of the closures and student transfers.  The court stated this was a “critical gap in the evidence” that prevented BUSD from determining based on sufficient evidence whether the school closures were exempt from CEQA pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15314.

On remand, the court directed BUSD to “effectively conduct an initial study to determine whether any categorical exemptions and any exceptions to those exemptions applied.”  Citing Ford Motor Co. v. NLRB (1939) 305 U.S. 364, 374, the court explained further that on remand BUSD “may adopt a corrected decision, without considering additional evidence, if its exemption determinations may be corrected based on the record before it at the time it passed the resolutions approving the closures and transfers. [Citation.] Alternatively, the District may consider additional evidence.”  The court also noted that SOS and other challengers must be provided an opportunity to present their own evidence and arguments on remand.

BUSD also argued that SOS’s petition was already moot because the schools had been closed for two years at the time of the decision. The court disagreed. The court noted that, on remand, BUSD could determine that the closures were not exempt from CEQA, and the schools could be reopened or BUSD could adopt other mitigation to address adverse environmental effects—if any—of the closures and transfers.

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