Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. Hon. Robert L. Craig, Trial Judge. Case Number TR95CH0193.
The Honorable Justice Heiple delivered the opinion of the court. Justice Miller, concurring in part and dissenting in part.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Heiple
The Honorable Justice HEIPLE delivered the opinion of the court:
Dr. Geraldine Jenkins, superintendent of East St. Louis School District No. 189, and the District No. 189 board of education filed separate complaints for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. The parties sought to enjoin the Financial Oversight Panel for District No. 189 from removing the members of the school board from office and sought a declaratory judgment that section 1B-20 of the of the School District Financial Oversight Panel and Emergency Financial Assistance Law (Emergency Financial Assistance Law) (105 ILCS 5/1B-1 et seq. (West 1994)) violated the due process and equal protection guarantees of the United States and Illinois Constitutions. The circuit court of St. Clair County held that section 1B-20 violated the right to vote and the due process and equal protection guarantees of the United States and Illinois Constitutions (U.S. Const., amends. V, XIV; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 2, art. III, § 1), and that the actions taken by the Panel to remove the school board pursuant to section 1B-20 were void. For the reasons stated below, we reverse.
In 1988 East St. Louis School District No. 189 (District No. 189) was certified by the State Board of Education as a district in financial difficulty under section 1A-8 of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law, which is part of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/1-1 et seq. (West 1994)). Upon certification that a school district is in financial difficulty, section 1A-8 of the School Code requires that district to submit a financial plan to the State Board of Education. 105 ILCS 5/1A-8 (West 1994). In October 1994, with the financial problems of District No. 189 persisting, the State Board of Education established a Financial Oversight Panel (Panel) pursuant to section 1B-4 of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law, which it may do upon a majority vote of a local school board. 105 ILCS 5/1B-4 (West 1994). The purpose of a Financial Oversight Panel is to provide assistance to and exercise financial control over a financially troubled school district. Sections 1B-6(i), 1B-14(b) and 1B-10 of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law authorize the Panel to approve or reject school board contracts as part of this control. 105 ILCS 5/1B-6(i), 1B-10, 1B-14 (West 1994).
The instant controversy arose over the contract of Dr. Geraldine Jenkins, who became superintendent of the school district in 1994. The renewal of Dr. Jenkins' contract was up for consideration in 1996, and on March 18, 1996, the board of education of School District No. 189 (the school board), a seven-member elected body, voted to renew her contract. At a meeting on March 20, the Panel reviewed Dr. Jenkins' contract, and subsequently issued a notice to the school board, stating that "the Panel believes the current contract does not meet the needs of the District under the situation and needs of the District today." The Panel ordered the school board not to renew Dr. Jenkins' contract and directed the school board to work with the Panel to develop guidelines for the duties and qualifications of the superintendent to be set down in a new contract.
On March 28, the school board voted to refuse to follow the Panel's directive to inform Dr. Jenkins that her contract would not be renewed. Pursuant to section 1B-20 of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law, which authorizes the Panel to remove school board members from office for failure to follow a valid order of the Panel, on April 1 the Panel voted to remove the entire school board pursuant to section 1B-20. The Panel justified its decision by citing numerous instances where the school board refused to follow the Panel's directives, including the refusal to inform Dr. Jenkins that her contract would not be renewed. The Panel did not deliver written charges to the board members or conduct a hearing before dismissing the school board members, actions which are not required by the statute. The Panel forwarded notification of the school board members' removal to Jed Deets, the regional superintendent of schools, instructing him to fill the vacancies on the school board by May 1. At the time of these events, the terms of the seven school board members were due to expire in either November 1997 or November 1999.
The day after the Panel's vote to remove the school board, the school board filed a second amended complaint in an ongoing lawsuit against the Panel. Count I of the school board's second amended complaint requested a declaratory judgment that section 1B-20, by which the Panel purported to dismiss the school board, was unconstitutional in that it violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 and the United States Constitution. Count I further asserted that the Panel exceeded its authority when it terminated the renewal of Dr. Jenkins' contract. Count II of the school board's second amended complaint repeated the allegations of count I and sought a preliminary injunction against the Panel and the regional superintendent to prevent the removal of the school board. On April 19 the school board filed an additional motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the dismissal of the school board. The court allowed a subsequent motion to add the individual school board members as third-party plaintiffs.
Dr. Jenkins was granted permission to intervene, and on April 19 Dr. Jenkins, in her capacity as superintendent of schools of District No. 189 and as a resident and qualified voter of District No. 189, filed a complaint for injunctive relief. Dr. Jenkins' complaint asserted that the Panel lacked the authority to approve her contract, and that the Panel's decision not to allow her contract to be renewed unconstitutionally interfered with her property interest in her job and her liberty interest in her reputation. Dr. Jenkins further contended that the Panel's action removing the elected members of the school board under section 1B-20 was unconstitutional in that it violated her right to vote. Dr. Jenkins sought an injunction to prohibit the Panel from replacing her and removing the school board. She also sought a declaratory judgment as to the constitutionality of section 1B-20.
On April 29, 1996, the circuit court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining any acts to replace the members of the school board. In a written order entered on May 7, 1996, the circuit court determined that section 1B-20 was unconstitutional on its face insofar as it violated substantive and procedural due process and that it impinged upon the right to vote. The circuit court also found that section 1B-20 denied the voters of School District No. 189 equal protection of the laws.
We allowed this direct appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302(a) (134 Ill. 2d R. 302(a)). Appellants, the State of Illinois and the Illinois State Board of Education (the State), assert that section 1B-20 is constitutional. Appellees are Dr. Geraldine Jenkins, in her capacity as a voter and in her position as superintendent, and the school board of District No. 189, as an entity, in each member's individual capacity as a member of the school board, and in the members' capacities as voters. Appellees counter that section 1B-20 is unconstitutional on a number of grounds. They assert that section 1B-20: (1) infringes on the right to vote; (2) violates procedural due process; (3) violates equal protection; and (4) is an improper delegation of legislative authority. Dr. Jenkins alone contends that section 1B-20 is an improper delegation of judicial authority. *fn1 In its own separate argument, the school board asserts that section 1B-20 is unconstitutionally vague.
The State commences by asserting that the circuit court improperly reached the constitutionality of section 1B-20 because it did not first resolve potentially dispositive issues of statutory construction that were also before the court. A court should avoid declaring legislation unconstitutional if the case does not require it ( People ex rel. Waller v. 1990 Ford Bronco, 158 Ill. 2d 460, 464 (1994)), and the power to determine the constitutionality of a statute should only be exercised if such finding is essential to the disposition of a case ( Osborn v. Village of River Forest, 21 Ill. 2d 246, 249, 171 N.E.2d 579 (1961)). We will therefore first consider the questions of statutory construction raised by the parties.
We initially consider whether the Panel acted within its statutory authority when it ordered the school board not to renew Dr. Jenkins' contract. When Dr. Jenkins' two-year contract came up for renewal in 1996, the school board opted to renew. The Panel reviewed the contract, and in a letter to the school board, it stated that it believed that "the current contract does not meet the needs of the District under the situation and needs of the District today." The Panel directed the school board not to renew Dr. Jenkins' contract. The Panel further instructed that prior to approval of any contract for the superintendent of schools, the Panel would "work with the [school board] in developing guidelines for a new contract and duties for the Superintendent as well as qualifications and expectations of [the] Superintendent. The Panel wants to review the entire position of Superintendent in light of the financial areas of the Oversight Panel's responsibility and the current needs of the District." The Panel's ongoing concern regarding Dr. Jenkins' qualifications is evidenced by the minutes of a Panel meeting on September 28, 1995, which contain statements where the Panel expressed concern that Dr. Jenkins did not have sufficient financial expertise to keep the district's budget balanced. The Panel also noted when Dr. Jenkins' contract was due to expire and discussed various alternatives the school district had regarding leadership.
Under the School Code, the Panel does not have the authority to appoint the superintendent of schools; that power is reserved for the school board. 105 ILCS 5/10-23.8 (West 1994). The Panel does have the authority, however, to approve all contracts made by the school board. Section 1B-6(i) and section 1B-10 of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law authorize the Panel to approve or reject contracts and obligations made by the school board, while section 1B-14 outlines the procedure by which the school board may obtain the Panel's approval of its contracts. 105 ILCS 5/1B-6(i), 1B-10, 1B-14 (West 1994).
The Emergency Financial Assistance Law defines the scope of the Panel's authority as encompassing all powers necessary to meet its responsibilities and to carry out its purposes and the purposes of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law. The Panel's purpose is to "exercise financial control over the board of education, and * * * to furnish [the school board with] financial assistance" (105 ILCS 5/1B-6 (West 1994)), while the purpose of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law is "to provide emergency State financial assistance to school districts and establish a secure financial basis for their continued existence [and] * * * to establish procedure, provide powers and impose restrictions to assure the financial and educational integrity of the public schools" (105 ILCS 5/2(b) (West 1994)). The question, then, is whether in fulfilling its purposes the Panel is limited to a review of the strictly financial aspects of a contract, that is, salary, or whether the Panel has broader powers of contract oversight.
We find that the Panel acted within its authority under the Emergency Financial Assistance Law when it directed the school board not to renew Dr. Jenkins' contract. The language of the Emergency Financial Assistance Law does not expressly limit the Panel's authority over contracts to mere dollar approval. Nor is it contrary to the purpose of the statute for the Panel to require certain financial expertise of the superintendent to insure the financial well-being of the school district. It is certainly as important to the fiscal health of a school district in financial trouble to have a superintendent who can manage a budget as it is to have a superintendent whose salary is within that budget. The Panel was thus within its authority in refusing to renew a contact that did not require sufficient financial expertise of the superintendent.
The school board also raises issues of statutory interpretation. It argues that the Panel acted outside the authority of the statute when it ordered the regional superintendent to remove the school board members, and that the regional superintendent lacks the power to carry out that order. Whether the school board's interpretation of the statute is accurate is immaterial, however, because an examination of the record belies the school board's contention that the regional superintendent removed the school board members in the instant case. It was the Panel itself that performed the task. The regional superintendent was merely notified of the Panel's action and was ordered to fill the vacancies as provided for under section 10-10 of the School Code. 105 ILCS 5/10-10 (West 1994).
The school board next contends that the Panel itself did not have the authority to remove the school board. In support of this assertion, the school board refers to subsection 1B-20(d), which provides that school board members who fail to follow a valid order of the Panel or commit the school board to an unauthorized obligation are subject to "appropriate administrative discipline," including removal from office. The school board argues that subsection 1B-20(d) is unclear as to what body is to administer the sanction. The ...