The Quebec Superior Court recently reminded us that a decision made by a council of commissioners of a school board must be treated with deference by the courts.
1) The facts
In the matter of A.B. v. Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l’Île1 the applicants, who were representing their minor child, petitioned the Court to review a decision by the council of commissioners of a school board regarding the placement of their child in a specialized private school.
The applicants’ child had learning disabilities due to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder combined with an oppositional defiant disorder. While he achieved good academic grades, he required constant support and guidance because of his behaviour. He had attended pre-school in his neighbourhood, as well as the first year of elementary school. During that year he had to be hospitalized, and the attending physician recommended that he be transferred to a specialized school. The educational authorities acknowledged at that time that his local school was unable to provide the special services required by the child’s needs.
His parents, however, wanted him to attend a regular school. The school board accordingly instituted support and guidance measures so that he could attend a regular school other than the one in his neighbourhood. Subsequently, certain incidents including truancy and an altercation with a teacher prompted the school board to transfer the child to a specialized private school. It was this decision that the parents contested before the Court.
2) Judicial review of a decision by a school board
In making its decision, the school board relied on the recommendation of its decision review committee, in accordance with its policy on educational services for children who are handicapped or have learning or social maladjustment disabilities (the “Policy”) adopted pursuant to section 235 of the Education Act2.
The Court first of all noted that decisions covered by the Policy are discretionary in nature and made by designated school board officials.
The Court then pointed out that the applicable standard in reviewing the well-foundedness of an administrative decision is reasonableness. The Court thus had to determine whether the commissioners’ decision fell within the range of possible acceptable outcomes that are defensible in light of the facts and the law. Given the context, the Court concluded that great deference must be showed to the decision of the council of commissioners.
The Court found that the expertise of a school board’s decision-makers can be likened to that of elected municipal officials. Consequently, their specialized expertise must be respected by the courts, which will accordingly not intervene unless the commissioners’ decision caused an injustice tantamount to fraud.
In keeping with these principles, the Court concluded that the courts should not intervene where, in exercising the powers conferred on them by law, school-board commissioners make decisions which they consider to be in the best interest of the public, even though some members of the public might not approve of them.
Finally, the Court found that in this instance the decision made by the council of commissioners was within the scope of the powers conferred upon it by the Education Act. In addition, in the Court’s view the decision did not cause an injustice tantamount to fraud, nor was it tainted by any flaw making it unreasonable and justifying the Court’s intervention.
In its decision, the Court took into account the fact that the school board made the placement decision on the basis of an assessment made by education professionals who were experts in their field, so that its decision would be in the best interests of the child.
3) What is the takeaway from this decision?
This decision reminds us of the significant degree of deference with which courts must treat a decision made by a school board. The judiciary will accordingly not intervene to scrutinize the advisability of decisions made pursuant to the powers conferred on school boards by the Education Act.
Thus, just as in municipal matters, the decision of a school board is shielded from judicial intervention to the extent that it is reasonable. In each case, the party contesting the decision must establish that it is unreasonable, despite the special expertise that the commissioners of a school board are deemed to possess regarding all issues involving education.