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Like other forfeitures, reverters are not favored and a court of equity will not find one unless the evidence clearly shows that the purpose and spirit of the grant have been violated.
Pursuant to an instrument of conveyance executed in 1949, plaintiffs’ ancestor conveyed certain tract of land to defendant County Board of Education of Smith County, Tennessee, under the condition that the land shall be used for public school purposes forever. It was further agreed that in the event the defendant should cease to use said property for public school purposes, or abandon said property, the same shall revert to their grantors or the grantors’ heirs and assigns. Regular school was conducted on the property through the years from 1949 to August 1980, when the school was closed because of a severe decline in enrollment. The Board of Education employed the structures on the property for storage purposes until October, 1980, at which time the Board leased the building to a nonprofit Tennessee educational corporation for the latter’s “Head Start” program. Head Start was a pre-kindergarten program for 3 to 5 year olds with an extensive educational element as required by Federal regulation. Subsequently, plaintiffs McDonald and Gregory filed a declaratory judgment action against the defendant seeking a declaration that certain land conveyed by the plaintiffs' ancestor to the defendants had reverted to the plaintiffs under the provisions of the instrument of conveyance. The trial court held that a reverter had indeed occurred and awarded full relief to the plaintiffs. The appellate court affirmed the holding that a reverter had occurred but held that the reverter extended only to the land itself and did not include the value of the school building. Defendant challenged the decision.
Under the circumstances, did the land conveyed to the defendant revert to the plaintiff heirs?
On appeal, the Court reversed the judgments of the appellate court and the trial court and dismissed the complaint. The Court held that the building was leased to a corporation for use in its "Head Start" program. The scheme provided that each Head Start agency develop and administer a Head Start program aimed at providing comprehensive, health, nutritional, educational, social, and other services to disadvantaged pre-school children. The Court noted that Head Start programs were free for poverty level children, all handicapped children, and other children on a sliding scale basis. As such, the Court ruled that the program directly benefited and enhanced the public education process in the county so that the use of the property for "Head Start" purposes was a use for public school purposes within the meaning of the restriction in the conveyance to the board of education. The Court held that the property had not reverted to the heirs under the provisions of the fee simple determinable.