APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, FIRST DISTRICT, SECOND DIVISION
548 N.E.2d 640, 192 Ill. App. 3d 182, 139 Ill. Dec. 255 1989.IL.1926
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Thomas O'Brien, Judge, presiding.
PRESIDING JUSTICE BILANDIC delivered the opinion of the court. HARTMAN and DiVITO, JJ., concur.
DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE BILANDIC
Defendant Board of Education of School District No. 94 (the Board) appeals from a judgment of the circuit court directing it to reinstate, with back pay, and pay damages to plaintiff, Mark Starkovich. The other plaintiffs are not involved in this appeal.
The defendant's principal arguments on appeal are that: (1) the judgment of the circuit court, finding that the defendant wrongfully discharged the plaintiff, is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence; and (2) the circuit court erroneously found that the plaintiff was discharged in retaliation for exercising his constitutional right of association.
The essential facts of the instant case are not in dispute. The plaintiff was a tenured teacher working for the defendant Board. At the Conclusion of the 1983-84 school term, the Board instituted a reduction in force and honorably dismissed the plaintiff, two other tenured teachers, and five non-tenured teachers pursuant to the Illinois School Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 122, par. 24-12). The Board cited economic necessity as its reason for the RIF, due to the declining student enrollment it had been experiencing for approximately 20 years. The three tenured teachers dismissed by the Board had from 16 to 21 years' experience with District 94. Prior to the RIF at issue, no tenured teacher had been honorably dismissed by the Board.
The three tenured teachers brought suit against the Board, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Board acted arbitrarily and unreasonably in dismissing the plaintiffs by basing such dismissals upon an economic necessity that did not exist. The plaintiffs also sought a declaratory judgment that they were dismissed by the Board in retaliation for their participation in the unionization efforts that had been taking place at their school during the 1983-84 school term.
The trial court found that "there is no credible evidence in the record that an economic necessity existed" and that the Board's action in dismissing the plaintiffs was "arbitrary and unreasonable." The court ordered the Board to reinstate the plaintiffs with back pay. It further found that the plaintiffs were discharged in retaliation for exercise of their constitutional rights and awarded the plaintiffs damages. Subsequent to filing the notice of appeal, counsel for defendant admitted that it erroneously terminated two of the three plaintiffs due to the fact that they had tenure status senior to some of the tenured faculty retained by the Board. All matters as to these two plaintiffs were settled, leaving the award of damages and reinstatement as to plaintiff Starkovich the only subject of this appeal. I
On appeal, the Board argues that the trial court erroneously determined that no economic necessity existed at the time the plaintiff was dismissed and, consequently, the trial court erred when it found that the dismissal decision was arbitrary and unreasonable.
The legislature has placed the administration of schools within the domain of the school board. A school board is given wide discretion to exercise its powers, and courts will not interfere with the exercise of the board's powers or substitute their discretion for that of the school board unless the board's action is palpably arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious. (Tyska v. Board of Education of Township High School District 214 (1983), 117 Ill. App. 3d 917, 922, 453 N.E.2d 1344, appeal denied (1983), 96 Ill. 2d 566.) The plaintiff does not deny that the Board has the statutory power, and indeed the statutory duty, to prudently manage the fiscal affairs of its district. However, Starkovich alleges that his dismissal was based upon a claim of economic necessity which did not exist. Thus, Starkovich argues, the defendant's decision to dismiss him because of economic necessity was palpably arbitrary and capricious. The trial court examined the evidence and agreed that no economic necessity existed. Upon review of the record, we affirm the trial court's holding.
The Board minutes, taken at the meetings where the dismissal decision was made, revealed no substantive or documentary evidence to support a claim of economic necessity. The Board alleged that declining student enrollment largely contributed to the economic necessity. However, the student enrollment, instead of declining, actually increased slightly from 1983-84, and from 1984-85. Further, at the time the Board dismissed Starkovich, the district was employing two extra full-time administrative personnel. If student enrollment actually were declining, the amount of administrative personnel needed would also necessarily decrease. Additionally, the three tenured teachers honorably dismissed by the Board were not the three teachers with the least amount of tenure. If the Board actually were dismissing faculty members because of economic necessity, the extra administrative personnel and the teachers with the least amount of seniority would have been the logical choices.
Moreover, Starkovich presented expert testimony at trial to support his contention that there was no economic necessity. Harry Van Houdnos, of the Illinois Education Association, testified that the district's financial condition from 1983-85 was "progressively enhancing" and that the district, at the time of plaintiff's dismissal, was in "excellent fiscal condition." The district was without debt for three years at the time of the dismissal. In fact, in 1985, the district experienced a 5% decrease in requested tax revenue. Mr. Van ...