DOJ: News Release

McGrath: School District Abandonment Permanent

HELENA – In an opinion released Thursday, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath held that once a school district has been abandoned under state statute, the abandonment is a permanent one.

Sweet Grass County Attorney Richard Malagisi requested the opinion. At issue was the Bridge school district in Sweet Grass County and, within that district, Bridge School. The Bridge School did not operate during fiscal years 1998-99, 1999-2000 or 2000-2001. Under Montana law, a district ceases to exist once a school has not been operated in the district for at least 180 days in three consecutive school fiscal years, so the Bridge district was abandoned.

In May 2001, the Sweet Grass County Superintendent of Schools petitioned the Office of Public Instruction to reopen the Bridge School. OPI denied the request. Sweet Grass County then argued that under another Montana law – one describing the conditions for reopening schools within an elementary district – the Bridge School should be reopened.

McGrath’s opinion held that once the district was abandoned, it no longer existed. Since the “reopening” statute presumed the existence of a district, it simply could not apply. McGrath wrote that in an analysis of the abandonment statute, “I conclude that where a school district has not operated a school for three consecutive school fiscal years, the abandonment … is a permanent one.”

The opinion also noted that when a district is abandoned, its lands are attached to another, adjacent district. The law did not “prevent this contiguous district from petitioning to reopen the Bridge School” McGrath wrote.

An attorney general’s opinion carries the weight of law unless the Supreme Court overturns it or the Legislature modifies the laws involved.

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