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Federal Court Upholds School District’s Right to Determine School Attendance Zones

By Mark W. McInerney / Sep 19, 2014

A federal court in Detroit, in a case in which Clark Hill was privileged to represent the prevailing school district, has upheld the district's right to establish attendance zones in the district, and thus to determine which students attend which schools.

Strehlke, et al v Grosse Pointe Public School System, et al, involved a purported class action lawsuit filed by a group of parents on behalf of their middle school-age students.  Assignments to the District's two high schools are determined by the location of the students' residences.  Attendance zones were established when the District's second high school was opened in 1968, and were based on an equal division of the District's ten elementary schools in existence at the time.  As a result, while most residents of the City of Grosse Pointe Farms were assigned to Grosse Pointe South High School, a small area of Grosse Pointe Farms was and has remained in the Grosse Pointe North attendance zone.  The Plaintiffs were residents of the part of Grosse Pointe Farms in the Grosse Pointe North zone.  They claimed that the separation of their students from fellow residents of Grosse Pointe Farms deprived them of equal protection of the laws, the privileges and immunities of citizenship, and their right to freedom of association, all as guaranteed by the United States and Michigan Constitutions.   

In an opinion issued on September 15, 2014, United States District Judge Patrick J. Duggan granted the District's motion to dismiss the case, and entered judgment in the District's favor.  Starting with the Plaintiffs' equal protection claim, the Court held that since there were no allegations of discrimination on the basis of race or any other protected class, and since education has long been held not to constitute a "fundamental right," the District's actions would be reviewed under the deferential "rational basis" standard, rather than the "strict scrutiny" standard.  The Court added that "rational basis" review "is a paradigm of judicial restraint, growing out of recognition that equal protection is not a license for courts to judge the wisdom, fairness or logic of legislative choices."  Rational basis review, the Court noted, does not require perfect decision-making, but only rational decision-making.  On that basis, the Court held that there was nothing irrational about the boundary the District had established and its limitation upon transfers between the high schools.  The fact that Plaintiffs wanted their children to attend Grosse Pointe South, the Court concluded, did not mean they had a constitutional right to do so.

The Court rejected Plaintiffs' contention that the boundary deprived them of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, observing that that theory had been largely dormant for over 130 years, and that Plaintiffs had asserted no viable claim under the theory.

The essence of Plaintiffs' contention that their right to freedom of association under the First Amendment was being abridged was their claim that going to school at Grosse Pointe South deprived them of the right to form or pursue friendships with fellow Grosse Pointe Farms residents at Grosse Pointe South.  The Court observed that freedom of association has been held to protect certain intimate relationships, generally those connected with the creation and sustenance of a family.  While at least one court has extended that protection to friendships, the Court concluded that the claim in this case was too attenuated, holding that "a friendship based solely on geographical proximity is not one that is so intimate and close as to be entitled to First Amendment protection."

The Court's decision thus vindicated a school district's authority to establish school boundaries, particularly when there is no evidence that boundary decisions were based on impermissible discrimination.  So long as a district can show a rational basis for its boundary decisions, those decisions are not subject to second-guessing by a court. 

If you have questions about the Strehlke decision, or generally about intra-district boundaries or other residency issues, please contact Mark McInerney at (313) 965-8383, mmcinerney@clarkhill.com, or another member of Clark Hill's Education Law group