Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Arthur Dunne, Judge Presiding.
Petition for Leave to Appeal Denied December 6, 1995.
The Honorable Justice Theis delivered the opinion of the court: Cahill and O'brien, S., JJ., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Theis
JUSTICE THEIS delivered the opinion of the court:
The defendants appeal from the circuit court's order reversing the decision of the Joint Board of Trustees of Schools ("Joint Board") which denied the plaintiffs' petition to detach certain territory from Thornton Township High School District No. 205 ("District 205") and to annex it to Thornton Fractional Township High School District No. 215 ("District 215") under section 7-2b of the School Code. (105 ILCS 5/7-2b (West 1992).) The circuit court also entered sanctions, sua sponte, against the Thornton Township School Trustees ("ThorntonTrustees") stating that their motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint was frivolous. (See 134 Ill. 2d R. 137.) The defendants now argue that the decision of the Joint Board was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. Further, the Thornton Trustees maintain that their motion to dismiss was based on an objectively reasonable argument for the extension of existing law, and therefore, the circuit court abused its discretion in imposing sanctions. We affirm the circuit court's finding that the Joint Board's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence and that the detachment and annexation should have been granted. We also hold that the trial court abused its discretion when it sanctioned the Thornton Trustees.
On June 16, 1993, a petition was filed with the Trustees of Schools of Township 36, Range No. 14, to detach certain territory ("Territory") from District 205 and annex it to District 215 under section 7-2b of the Illinois School Code. (105 ILCS 5/7-2b (West 1992).) Districts 205 and 215 lie within four different townships in Cook County, Illinois: (1) Thornton Township, (2) Thornton Fractional Township, (3) Calumet Township, and (4) Bloom Township. Therefore, pursuant to section 7-04(a), the Trustees of Schools from each of these townships formed the Joint Board, the body responsible for holding a hearing and rendering a decision on the plaintiffs' petition. 105 ILCS 5/7-04(a) (West 1992).
The Joint Board held an evidentiary hearing on September 16, 1993. The parties agreed that the Territory at issue is located in Lansing, Illinois, and is comprised of all of precinct 166 and a portion of precinct 174. In support of their petition, the plaintiffs submitted documentary evidence including: (1) a certified copy of the voter registration lists for precincts 166 and 174, (2) a list of the equalized assessed value for all the real estate included in the Territory, (3) 67 circulated petition sheets containing 774 signatures, (4) certified copies of maps prepared by the Department of Revenue dated December 1989, showing the boundaries of Districts 205 and 215, (5) a copy of the precinct map for precincts 166 and 174 certified by the county clerk, (6) a tally sheet showing the number of registered voters who signed the petition, (7) a map outlining the detachment Territory and high school districts, and (8) a legal description of the Territory. The plaintiffs rested on their documents as sufficient evidence that they met the requirements of section 7-2b.
The defendants, District 205 and the Thornton Trustees, objected to the plaintiffs' petition on several grounds. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs did not meet the contiguity requirement of section 7-2b. They offered an uncertified map prepared by the Cook County Department of Highways dated July 1, 1974, which purportedly showed the boundaries of Districts 205 and 215. Dr. Richard Taylor, the superintendent of District 205, testified that the defendants' map was the one used by District 205 in its day-to-day business. According to Dr. Taylor, the defendants' map shows that the easternmost boundary of District 205 is Torrence Avenue. The defendants argue that Dr. Taylor's testimony implies that a portion of District 205 would be surrounded by District 215 if detachment were permitted. Dr. Taylor further testified that the Educational Service Region, the entity from which the defendants obtained the map, refused to certify the map.
Following the hearing, each of the individual school trustees for the four townships issued a written opinion. The Trustees for Bloom, Calumet and Thornton Fractional Townships all allowed the petition for detachment and annexation specifically finding that the petitioners met their burden of proving the requirements of section 7-2b. However, the Thornton Trustees denied the petition, concluding that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof regarding contiguity and the total number of registered voters who resided within the detaching Territory. The Thornton Trustees also found 95 of the 774 signatures invalid. Consequently, the plaintiffs' petition was denied because the Joint Board did not reach a consensus as required by section 7-04(a) of the School Code. See 105 ILCS 5/7-04(a) (West 1992).
The plaintiffs then filed a complaint for administrative review. The circuit court reversed the Joint Board's decision, concluding that it was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The court found that the plaintiffs presented adequate proof of the total number of signatures, that 50 signatures were improperly invalidated by the Joint Board and that the plaintiffs demonstrated that Districts 205 and 215 were contiguous. The court ordered the detachment and annexation to go forward, entered sanctions against the Thornton Trustees for filing a frivolous motion to dismiss and awarded the plaintiffs costs and attorney fees in the amount of $2,062.50. The defendants, the Thornton Trustees and District 205, now appeal.
The first question presented on review is whether the Joint Board's decision denying the plaintiffs' petition for detachment and annexation was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Specifically, we must determine whether the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of producing evidence sufficient to permit the detachment and annexation under section 7-2b of the School Code.
Section 7-2b of the School Code provides in part:
"Any contiguous portion of an elementary or high school district that constitutes 10% or less of the equalized assessed value of the district shall upon petition of two-thirds of the registered voters of the territory proposed to be detached and annexed be so detached and annexed by the regional board of school trustees ***. The regional board of school trustees shall have no authority or discretion to hear any evidence or consider any issues except those that may be necessary to determine whether the limitations and conditions of this Section have been met." Pub. Act. 87-1270, eff. March 3, 1993 (amending 105 ILCS 5/7-2b (West 1992)).
The defendants concede that the plaintiffs presented evidence which proved that the detaching area had an equalized assessed valuation of less than 10% of District 205's total valuation. Therefore, the narrow issues before us are: (1) whether the plaintiffs have met their burden of proving that the detaching Territory is contiguous with District 215, (2) whether the plaintiffs met their burden concerning the total number of registered voters in the detaching area, and (3) whether section 7-1 of the School Code applies to petitions filed under section 7-2b and, ...