Coalition to Preserve Educ. on the Westside v. School Dist. of Kansas City, WD

Decision Date29 March 1983
Docket NumberNo. WD,WD
Citation649 S.W.2d 533
Parties11 Ed. Law Rep. 307 COALITION TO PRESERVE EDUCATION ON THE WESTSIDE, et al., Appellants, v. SCHOOL DISTRICT OF KANSAS CITY, Missouri, et al., Respondents. 33320.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Michael Duffy (argued), Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Kansas City, for appellants.

Shirley Keeler (argued), Blackwell, Sanders, Matheny, Weary & Lombardi, Kansas City, for respondents.


NUGENT, Judge.

The Coalition to Preserve Education on the Westside (hereinafter Coalition) appeals from the trial court judgment that no valid, binding contract existed between the Coalition and the School District of Kansas City (hereinafter District) to open an experimental school in the West High School building. The Coalition argues that the contract is valid because the operation of the school was a proprietary, non-governmental function; because the Coalition was not granted any discretion over governmental functions; because even if the contract limited the exercise of governmental discretion, the limitation was reasonable; and because the District is estopped from denying the validity of the contract because it has already received substantial benefit. We affirm the judgment.

The Coalition is an unincorporated association of parents, students and residents of the "westside" of Kansas City, Missouri, organized in July, 1980 for the purpose of advocating improvements in the quality of education in the westside neighborhood. Six individual members represent the association in this action.

Although West High School had, at one time, an enrollment of 700 or 900 students, in 1978 the District stopped operating a high school at that location because, according to Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Wheeler, the cost of operation was disproportionately high, enrollment was too small (167) and insufficient funds were available to operate the high school. After closing the high school program, the District received funding from the federal government for a business management magnet school which it operated in the West High School building. For the next two years, the magnet program failed to live up to expectations, incurring a $3,600 per student cost, or $1,400 above the District's average high school cost. Finally, on August 5, 1980, the school board voted to close the building and relocate the magnet program.

Mr. Don Pecina, chairman of the Coalition, testified that in 1978, he and other area residents became concerned about the high rate of absenteeism at West High School, the high dropout rate, and the failure of westside youths to receive a quality education. The group began conferring with the principal of the school and Dr. Wheeler about these and other problems.

When the building was closed in 1980, the group was highly dissatisfied. It wanted the high school reopened, but it wanted one of higher quality than the previous school, and one over which the community could have control.

Following an unsuccessful attempt by the Coalition to meet with the school board, the group entered and occupied the West High School building "in the name of the community." The group was ordered to leave but refused to do so. Dr. Wheeler testified that as a result of this occupation, he decided to reach an accommodation with the Coalition. As the occupation continued, he met several times with a committee of westside residents which had drafted a "proposal concept" for a "community-controlled" experimental program. On August 14, 1980, he and his staff reviewed the proposal concept, meeting with Coalition representatives who agreed to substitute "community-sponsored" for the troublesome "community-controlled". That evening, a special meeting of the school board was held at which the proposal concept was unanimously adopted.

The document, as approved, provided that "the Kansas City School Board agrees to develop a community-sponsored experimental high school to be located in the West High School building and to begin operations in the fall of 1981." Also provided for was a West Community School Committee, comprised of nine persons, five of which were to be representatives of the community, to work with the District to "insure operation of the facility in the 1980-81 school year", "participate in the evaluation of the principal and the staff", "raise funds", "recommend budgetary expenditures", "develop curriculum", and "establish methods of communicating with the community and the Kansas City School Board." The committee agreed to present a comprehensive program, including budgets, by January 15, 1981.

Following the approval of the proposal, the Coalition vacated the West High School building, appointed the committee provided for in the document, met with parents, planned curriculum, recruited students, raised funds, interviewed applicants for the principal position, and consulted frequently with the school board. At the recommendation of the committee, the board employed Midwest Research to develop a detailed plan of operation for the proposed experimental program at a cost of $40,000. The plan was adopted on February 19, 1981, with a budget of $390,594.

By June, however, financial difficulties began to put several school programs in jeopardy. On July 21, 1981, the board adopted a motion "that the westside be notified that the District at this time had no plan to open an experimental school as previously planned." Dr. Wheeler later testified that this move was necessitated by uncertainty as to the amount of revenue the District would receive and a need to cut $5,000,000 from the preliminary budget to avoid operating at a deficit. Thirteen other schools were closed at the same time and 450 teachers furloughed. In light of these cutbacks, Dr. Wheeler stated that he could not justify the operation of an experimental program at West High School.

Shortly thereafter, the Coalition again entered the building and began teaching sixty-two students. On September 3, 1981, the District sought injunctive relief, alleging that the Coalition members were trespassing and conducting a private school program in a public school building. On September 15, 1981, the Coalition sought specific performance of the agreement adopted on August 14, 1980. The cases were consolidated. After hearing the evidence, the trial court issued an extensive 33-page memorandum and order making the following findings: (1) a contract existed because it was sufficiently specific, and the necessary elements of offer, acceptance by the District, and consideration (in the form of mutual promises) were present; (2) the Coalition, as an unincorporated association, had the capacity to contract and sue; (3) the contract was not invalidated by duress because the District was not bereft of free will simply because of the pressures of the building occupation; (4) by unconditionally promising to open an experimental school, the school board contractually gave up its right not to open the school, a discretionary governmental function which it had no authority to contract away; (5) the board did not clearly abuse its discretion when it decided that financial circumstances required a closing of the experimental program; and (6) the Coalition had no right to enter West High School and conduct an unauthorized school and was, therefore, enjoined from such activities.

On appeal, the Coalition challenges only the finding (4) and charges that the trial court's ruling that the contract was void because the District contracted away a governmental function was erroneous because:

(1) The actions of the District were proprietary and not governmental in nature;

(2) The contract was a result of proprietary action, not governmental, because it does not purport to invest the Coalition with discretion over governmental functions;

(3) Even though the contract may have the effect of limiting the future exercise of governmental discretion of the District, it is valid because it was for a specific project, was in the public interest, was for the performance of an act within the District's power to perform, was not a limitation upon the discretionary exercise of police powers, was fair, reasonable, and advantageous to the District, was the result of arms length bargaining and not entered into fraudulently or in bad faith; and

(4) The District is estopped from denying the validity of the contract.

Before proceeding to a discussion of the essential questions on this appeal we must note the gentle remonstration of our brother Manford in his occurrence. He believes that we fail in our responsibility when we decline to address a number of issues raised by the respondent District. His reproofs of this majority opinion reflect a difference of view as to the purpose and function of an appellate judicial opinion.

A discussion of the issues raised by the District is not necessary to the disposition of this appeal because, even if we decided all those issues in favor of the Coalition, the ultimate issue is whether on these facts the school board could legally contract away its discretion. If not, all other issues are moot.

Judicial opinions are meant to resolve legal disputes. Therefore, an appellate court does not decide and should suppress its instructive instincts and not discuss issues which are irrelevant and unimportant to resolution of the legal dispute presented. As Bowen, L.J., wrote in Cooke v. New River Co., (1888) L.R. 38 Ch.D. 56, 70-71:

I am extremely reluctant to decide anything except what is necessary for the special case, because I believe by long experience that judgments come with far more weight and gravity when they come upon points which the Judges are bound to decide, and I believe that obiter dicta, like the proverbial chickens of destiny, come home to roost sooner or later in a very uncomfortable way to the Judges who have uttered them, and are a great source of embarrassment...

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