Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 11-MR-263 Honorable Thomas A. Meyer, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Schostok
JUSTICE SCHOSTOK delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Hudson and Birkett concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 This case involves a dispute between the plaintiffs, the Board of Education of Nippersink School District 2 and the Board of Education of Richmond-Burton Community High School District 157, and the Illinois State Board of Education (State Board) regarding the proper amount of general state aid that should be paid to the plaintiffs under article 18 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/18-1 et seq. (West 2010)). The only issue before us at this point, however, is the proper venue for that dispute.
¶ 2 The plaintiffs, coterminous school districts that share a common superintendent, assert that they are entitled to receive funding calculated under section 18-8.1 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/18-8.1 (West 2010)), which contains a funding formula for coterminous districts based on average daily attendance in each district. On November 29, 2010, Dr. Dan Oest, the superintendent of both districts, contacted the State Board to inquire whether section 18-8.1 applied to the plaintiffs and, if so, to ask that the plaintiffs' state aid for the past three years be recalculated using that formula. Dr. Oest repeated this request in writing on December 3, 2010. In a letter refusing the request, the State Board asserted that section 18-8.1 was rendered "obsolete" following the 1998 enactment of section 18-8.05 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/18-8.05 (West 2010)). Thereafter, the parties' attorneys exchanged e-mails on the topic, the upshot of which was that the State Board would not reconsider its decision.
¶ 3 On September 2, 2011, the plaintiffs filed in McHenry County a complaint for mandamus against the defendants, the State Board and its superintendent, Christopher A. Koch. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that they were coterminous districts that shared the same superintendent; they were entitled to funding based on average daily attendance in each district, pursuant to the formula in section 18-8.1 of the School Code; they were required to file claims for funding with the State Board; and the State Board had acted contrary to law in refusing to calculate the plaintiffs' funding based on the proper formula. The plaintiffs attached to their complaint (a) the December 3, 2010, correspondence that Dr. Oest sent from his office in Richmond to the State Board at its Springfield office, seeking recalculation of the state aid under the section 18-8.1 formula; (b) a letter dated December 21, 2010, sent from a senior budget analyst at the State Board's Springfield office to Dr. Oest in Richmond, denying Dr. Oest's demand; and (c) printouts of the e-mails exchanged between the parties' attorneys. The plaintiffs sought to require the defendants to: recalculate the amounts owed to them for the past four fiscal years using the section 18-8.1 formula; pay the plaintiffs the difference; and use the section 18-8.1 formula in calculating their state aid in the future.
¶ 4 Six weeks after the suit was filed, the defendants filed a motion to transfer venue, arguing that venue was not proper in McHenry County under section 2-103(a) of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-103(a) (West 2010)). As relevant here, that provision states:
"Actions must be brought against a public, municipal, governmental or quasi-municipal corporation in the county in which its principal office is located or in the county in which the transaction or some part thereof occurred out of which the cause of action arose." 735 ILCS 5/2-103(a) (West 2010).
The defendants argued that McHenry County was neither the site of their principal office nor a county in which any part of the transaction at issue arose. They sought to have the action transferred to Sangamon County, the location of their principal office. In support of their motion, they argued that the only relevant "transaction" that gave rise to the mandamus suit was the State Board's denial of Dr. Oest's demand for recalculation. As that letter was sent from Springfield, the defendants argued that Sangamon County was the place where the cause of action arose.
¶ 5 In their response, the plaintiffs conceded that the defendants' principal office was located outside of McHenry County (although they noted that the defendants maintained a regional office in McHenry County). The plaintiffs argued that venue was proper in McHenry County, however, under the transactional prong of the venue statute. The plaintiffs argued that, under that prong, courts look to "(1) the nature of the cause of action and (2) the place where the cause of action springs into existence." Lake County Riverboat L.P. v. Illinois Gaming Board, 313 Ill. App. 3d 943, 952 (2000). Here, the cause of action was for mandamus. To prevail in such an action, the plaintiffs would have to prove among other things a clear right to the relief requested, which would require proof that the two school districts were coterminous and shared a superintendent, that they applied for general state aid for the relevant years, that they received the wrong amounts of such aid, and that they requested recalculation of the aid. The plaintiffs suggested that they would present local witnesses such as Dr. Oest to establish these facts.
¶ 6 The plaintiffs further noted that the place where the cause of action sprang into existence was determined by considering where " 'any significant negotiations were carried on between the parties, where an agreement was signed, the place where it was, or was supposed to be performed, or where matters occurred that the plaintiff has the burden of proving.' " Williams v. Illinois State Scholarship Comm'n, 139 Ill. 2d 24, 68 (1990) (quoting People ex rel. Carpentier v. Lange, 8 Ill. 2d 437, 441 (1956)). The plaintiffs argued that most of these factors were not present in this case-there were no negotiations and no agreement was signed-but the matters that they had the burden of proving occurred in McHenry County. In addition, the School Code's requirements regarding general state aid were supposed to be performed or carried out in McHenry County.
¶ 7 Finally, the plaintiffs relied heavily on the argument that, in determining proper venue in a suit against governmental actors, a court should look to where the effects of the governmental action would be felt: " '[i]t is where the shaft strikes ***, not where it is drawn, that counts.' " Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co. v. Fisher, 351 Ill. App. 215, 221-22 (1953) (quoting Cecil v. Superior Court, 140 P.2d 125, 129 (Cal. Dist. Ct. App. 1943)). The plaintiffs argued that "where the shaft would strike," i.e., where the effects of the grant or denial of their request for recalculation of their funding would be felt, was in McHenry County. To this, the defendants countered that the effects of the mandamus action would be felt solely in Sangamon County, as the recalculation sought by the plaintiffs would occur in the State Board's office there. The defendants emphasized that any additional funding due would be paid from Sangamon County; the plaintiffs emphasized that the funding would be received and used in McHenry County for schools there.
¶ 8 After considering the parties' briefs and hearing oral argument on the venue issue, the trial court ruled as follows:
"Well, I'm going to grant the [motion] to transfer venue.
I think the argument the way the shaft strikes is equally applicable to both here and Sangamon County because there're going to be acts here, but there're also going to be acts there. And I don't believe that there's any evidence otherwise that the transaction-there's any evidence supporting the argument that the transaction actually touches McHenry County other than the effects are going to be felt here. But it's not going to be felt only here. And ...