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Smith v. Henderson

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 10, 2013

SHANNON MARIE SMITH, et al., Plaintiffs,
KAYA HENDERSON, Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, et al., Defendants

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For SHANNON MARIE SMITH, Plaintiff: Johnny Barnes, LEAD ATTORNEY, Washington, DC; John C. Brittain, PRO HAC VICE, Washington, DC.





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JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

This fall, when District of Columbia students returned to their classrooms, the doors of thirteen public school buildings remained closed, the windows dark. Two more schools will be shut down at the end of the school year. The closures are a result of the waning student population in each of the fifteen schools: By 2013, most of those schools were half full, and in five schools only a quarter of the seats remained occupied. The population drain can largely be explained by the emigration of District students to charter schools, publicly funded and privately operated schools of choice scattered throughout the city. Between the rise of charter schools and changing population patterns, D.C. Public Schools in certain neighborhoods have been emptied of their occupants. Reacting to this sea change, DCPS has implemented a school-reorganization plan that aims to maximize resources and improve education by closing under-enrolled schools, reassigning students to higher-performing schools, and reallocating the cost savings to other schools throughout the District.

Understandably, parents are upset to see their neighborhood schools shuttered and their children transferred to schools farther from their homes. As a result, a small group of parents and guardians, along with several Advisory Neighborhood

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Commissioners, are suing the District, its Mayor, and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Plaintiffs claim that the school closures discriminate against poor, minority, and disabled students and were enacted without sufficient community input, thus violating a host of constitutional, federal, and state provisions. Plaintiffs contend that similarly under-enrolled schools in affluent white neighborhoods were kept open and nursed back to health in the 1970s, and that the District's policy regarding under-enrolled schools has therefore been applied differently based on race and income.

When they filed this suit last March, Plaintiffs also moved for a preliminary injunction, hoping to forestall the District's implementation of its school-reorganization plan. After lengthy briefing and an impassioned hearing, this Court ultimately denied the motion. It held that the Commissioners lacked standing and the parents and guardians were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their suit. See Smith v. Henderson (Smith I), No. 13-420, 944 F.Supp.2d 89, 2013 WL 2099804 (D.D.C. May 15, 2013). Having lost that battle, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint, hoping to remedy some of the deficiencies in their earlier effort. See ECF No.16.

Defendants, believing that this new pleading is still infirm, now move to dismiss the case. They argue that, even if the facts laid out in the Amended Complaint are true, it still fails to make out a case. The Court agrees with the District on the bulk of Plaintiffs' claims. Nevertheless, the parents and guardians have alleged sufficient facts to state claims of discrimination under the three civil-rights provisions at the heart of their case: the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and the D.C. Human Rights Act. The District next urges the Court to proceed to summary judgment -- that is, to consider the evidence on both sides and to find that no reasonable jury could side with Plaintiffs. Because the parties have not advanced through the full course of discovery, however, there is little evidence to be considered. Rather than jumping to summary judgment, then, the Court will allow Plaintiffs time to gather facts and the case to follow an ordinary course. Whether the parents and guardians can ultimately produce enough evidence to prove intentional or unjustified discrimination in the school closings remains a question for another day.

I. Background

The Court set forth the facts of this case in some detail in its Opinion regarding Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804. Because circumstances have not changed materially since that time, the Court will recite the basic facts of this case - which are largely uncontested - only briefly here, considering the allegations in the Amended Complaint and any public documents already submitted, and emphasizing the new information alleged by Plaintiffs.

A. Factual Background

The District of Columbia Public Schools runs the District's local public-school system. See D.C. Code § § 38-171 to -172. Kaya Henderson, the Chancellor of DCPS, acts as chief executive officer. See D.C. Code § 38-174(a). In addition to DCPS schools -- sometimes called " neighborhood schools" because school assignment is based on a child's address -- children in the District have the option of attending publicly funded charter schools in various locations across the city. See District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321, 1321-107 (1996).

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In part because of the growth of charter schools and in part because of changing population patterns, many DCPS schools are now only partially full -- particularly in certain neighborhoods. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804, at *1.

As a result of the increase in under-enrolled schools, Chancellor Henderson sought advice from consulting companies on how to use District resources more efficiently. After receiving at least two reports -- both of which suggested shutting under-performing or under-enrolled schools -- Henderson proposed closing twenty of those DCPS buildings over the course of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. See [WL] at *2; see also Opp., Exh. A (IFF Report) at 6. The majority of the schools slated to be closed operated at half capacity, and five schools had utilization rates under 25%. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804, at *2. DCPS explained that closing these under-enrolled schools would allow it to spend less money per pupil on non-instructional resources like overhead, while putting more students in modern facilities and giving them access to programs and staff that can be justified only for large schools. See id.

All of the schools slated to be closed were in majority-minority neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park, in Wards 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. See id. The District, like many cities, is divided geographically by race and income. East of the Park, residents are generally poorer and overwhelmingly black and Hispanic; west of the Park, residents are wealthier and mostly white. The proposal suggested no school closings in Ward 3, which is more white, more affluent, and west of the Park, or in Ward 1, which is east of the Park. See id. (" building-utilization rate is 74% in Ward 1 and 109% in Ward 3" ).

To gather feedback on its proposal, DCPS (i) convened community meetings throughout the city regarding the proposal, drawing over 780 participants; (ii) e-mailed ANC Commissioners, along with some Commissioners-Elect, with schools slated for closure in their districts; and (iii) sent a summary of the proposal home with every child attending a school on the closure list. See id. The City Council also held two hearings on the closures. See id.

In the end, DCPS made various changes to its initial plan based on community feedback, including keeping open five schools originally proposed for closure. See id. DCPS estimated that savings from the revised proposal would total $8.5 million and anticipated that those funds would be re-invested in schools throughout the city. See id. Plaintiffs argue that similar benefits projected from DCPS closures in 2008 never materialized, and that the projected benefits from this proposal are similarly overblown. See id. DCPS also published proposals for how the empty school buildings might be used. The District estimated that most schools would be retained in DCPS inventory, but suggested that some might be used by charter schools. See Mot., Exh. B (DCPS Proposed Consolidations and Reorganization) at 26. Plaintiffs claim that, since then, the District has entered into long-term leases with one or more charter schools for the use of the school buildings. See Opp. at 9 n.4.

All fifteen schools on the final closure list lie east of the Park -- meaning the students are disproportionately black and Latino. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804, at *3. In DCPS schools as a whole, 69% of students are black; 16% are Hispanic; 4% are Asian, other, or unknown; and 11% are white. See Facts & Statistics, D.C. Public Schools,ణ Who姯肭構泹꧝狼媶⬭觋

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(last visited Oct. 9, 2013). In the schools slated for closure, by contrast, 93.7% of students are black; 5.9% are Hispanic; 0.4% are Asian, other, or unknown; and less than 0.1% (2 out of 3053) are white. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804, at *3. The closing schools also contain a disproportionate number of children with special needs: 27.7% of students in those schools are in special education, versus 14.2% of students in DCPS overall. See id.

Plaintiffs claim that this disparate impact is intentional, either because it is stark enough to be inexplicable on grounds other than race or disability, or because it was motivated by discriminatory animus. See Opp. at 26-34. To support that allegation, Plaintiffs point to under-enrolled schools in Ward 3 circa the 1970s. See id. at 10-11. They claim that those schools, which were more affluent and white, were rehabilitated when they were under enrolled by busing students in from schools east of the Park. See id. By contrast, east-of-the-Park schools are now being shut down rather than rehabilitated.

B. Procedural Background

Five Plaintiffs filed this suit against Chancellor Henderson, Mayor Vincent Gray, and the District of Columbia as Defendants. Two of the original Plaintiffs -- Karlene Armstead and Ericka Black -- are ANC Commissioners who say they never received the legally required notice of the school closures. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804, at *3. The other three original Plaintiffs -- Shannon Smith, Marlece Turner, and Brenda Williams -- are parents or guardians of children who attend schools slated for closure. See id. All of the guardians' children are black or Hispanic and live east of the Park, and two have serious disabilities. See id. In the Amended Complaint, two additional ANC Commissioners -- Keith Kone and Phomika " Pho" Palmer -- were added as Plaintiffs. See Am. Compl., ¶ ¶ 5-6.

In their original Complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the District violated D.C. statutes requiring notice to ANC Commissioners and consideration of their views, the D.C. Sunshine Amendment, the Constitution's equal-protection guarantee (asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983), Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the D.C. Human Rights Act. See Smith I, 2013 WL 2099804, at *3. In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs retain their original counts and add allegations of breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. See Am. Compl., ¶ ¶ 103-09.

Although the Court already considered the validity of many of these claims in Smith I, it will now examine them in the context of Defendants' Motion To Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment.

II. Legal Standard

A. Motion to Dismiss

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails " to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In evaluating Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the Court must " treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff 'the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'" Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113, 342 U.S.App. D.C. 268 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608, 199 U.S.App. D.C. 23 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (internal citation ...

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