Gere v. Council Bluffs Community School Dist., 157

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation334 N.W.2d 307
Docket NumberNo. 157,157
Parties11 Ed. Law Rep. 629 Lloyd J. GERE, Appellee, v. COUNCIL BLUFFS COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Appellant.
Decision Date18 May 1983

Page 307

334 N.W.2d 307
11 Ed. Law Rep. 629
Lloyd J. GERE, Appellee,
No. 157.
Supreme Court of Iowa.
May 18, 1983.
Rehearing Denied June 9, 1983.

Page 308

Edgar H. Bittle of Ahlers, Cooney, Dorweiler, Haynie & Smith, Des Moines, Richard A. Porter of Porter, Lash, Reilly & Tauke, Council Bluffs, and William R. Sullivan, Jr., Bettye S. Kitch, and Lynne F. Siegel of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, Chicago, Ill., for appellant.

Philip J. Willson of Smith, Peterson, Beckman & Willson, Council Bluffs, for appellee.

Page 309



This appeal requires us to construe an employment contract between a school district and an elementary school principal as well as a statute relating to school principals.

Lloyd J. Gere has been a teacher and principal in the Council Bluffs Community School District for more than twenty years. For the past several years he served as principal of two small elementary schools. Because of declining enrollment and budgetary cutbacks, the district decided to close some elementary schools beginning with the 1981-1982 school year. In the process, Gere's assignment for that year was changed to the duties of (1) elementary school principal of a small 65-student school, (2) coordinator of the district's outdoor education program, and (3) attendance officer for the district. Gere objected to the assignment as attendance officer but performed those duties under protest. He then filed a petition for declaratory judgment, asking the court to prohibit the district from requiring him to serve as attendance officer.

Gere willingly accepted the outdoor education coordinator position but asserts that his continuing contract as elementary principal does not permit the assignment as attendance officer. He argues that such an assignment violates his reasonable expectations, and is bizarre, oppressive, unreasonable, arbitrary, and unconscionable. On the other hand, the district maintains that it has a contractual and statutory right to make such an assignment, and that the assignment does not violate Gere's reasonable expectations and is not otherwise invalid. The trial court concluded Gere's contract did not permit the assignment as attendance officer because those duties would not be within the reasonable expectations of the parties and would also be unconscionable in view of the parties' unequal bargaining positions. The district appealed.

I. We initially address two preliminary issues. First, Gere contends the case is now moot because the 1981-1982 school year has passed. As the district points out, however, interpretation of the contract terms and statutory provisions involved is needed for other school districts which, as the evidence indicates, face similar choices in staff assignments. Where matters of public importance are presented and the issues are likely to recur, the claim should not be dismissed on mootness grounds. Iowa Freedom of Information Council v. Wifvat, 328 N.W.2d 920, 922 (Iowa 1983). Such is the situation here.

As to the allegations that the assignment of attendance officer duties was the result of unconscionability and unequal bargaining power, Gere argues the district unfairly made his assignment for the 1981-1982 school year at an unreasonably late date in July of 1981. Because the 1981-1982 school year has passed, these specific issues are truly moot. We thus confine ourselves to the basic issue of whether the assignment by the school district was permissible. Underlying that issue is the broader question of the scope of the assignment authority of school districts in light of today's declining enrollments and budgets.

Second, findings of fact by the trial court in this law case are the equivalent of a jury verdict. If supported by substantial evidence and justified as a matter of law, they are binding on us. Keith v. Community School District of Wilton, 262 N.W.2d 249, 255 (Iowa 1978). Construction of a contract or a statute, however, is a matter of law for the court. Thomas v. Thomas Truck & Caster Co., 228 N.W.2d 52, 54 (Iowa 1975); Cassady v. Wheeler, 224 N.W.2d 649 (Iowa 1974). We are not precluded from inquiring into errors of law. Keith at 255. Neither are we bound by findings of fact resulting from application of an erroneous rule of law. Estate of Voelker, 252 N.W.2d 400, 402 (Iowa 1977); Steinbach v. Continental Western Insurance Co., 237 N.W.2d 780, 782 (Iowa 1976).

Page 310

II. Gere's continuing contract with the school district, pursuant to section 279.24 of the Iowa Code, was for the position of "elementary principal." The job description for that position lists twenty-four items of performance responsibilities. The last of these is, "perform other duties as assigned by the assistant superintendent for instruction and/or the superintendent of schools." A statute regarding principals provides in section 279.21 of the Iowa Code (1981):

The board of directors of a school district may employ principals, under the provisions of section 279.23. A principal shall hold a current valid principal's certificate. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 279.23, after serving at least nine months, a principal may be employed for a term of not to exceed two years.

The principal, under the supervision of the superintendent of the school district and pursuant to rules and policies of the board of directors of the school district, shall be responsible for administration and operation of the attendance center to which he is assigned.

The principal shall, pursuant to the policies adopted by the board of directors of the school district, be responsible for the planning, management, operation, and evaluation of the educational program offered at the attendance center to which the principal is assigned and shall submit recommendations to the...

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  • Lockhart v. Cedar Rapids Community School Dist., C 96-301-MWB.
    • United States
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