Save Our Stadiums v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 21-0999

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtWATERMAN, JUSTICE
Docket Number21-0999
Decision Date18 November 2022



No. 21-0999

Supreme Court of Iowa

November 18, 2022

Submitted October 13, 2022

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeffrey Farrell, Judge.

The plaintiffs appeal the district court's summary judgment dismissing claims challenging the defendant school district's refusal to grant their petition for a public referendum on funding for an athletic stadium. AFFIRMED.

Gary Dickey (argued) of Dickey, Campbell & Sahag Law Firm, PLC, Des Moines, for appellant.

Janice M. Thomas (argued), Lamson Dugan & Murray LLP, West Des Moines, Blake R. Hanson (until withdrawal), and Benjamin J. Kenkel (until withdrawal) of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C., Des Moines, for appellees.

Waterman, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all participating justices joined. Christensen, C.J., and Mansfield and May, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.



Citizens collected signatures for a petition to force a public referendum on the financing of a school district's proposed athletic stadium. The school board deemed the number of signatures insufficient to force a referendum, and the trial court agreed. The resulting appeal presents a question of statutory interpretation: how to determine the number of signatures needed to trigger the public referendum under Iowa Code section 423F.4(2)(b) (2020), which requires signatures totaling at least "thirty percent of the number of voters at the last preceding election of school officials under section 277.1." That election included both city and school officials on the ballot, and the parties disagree whether the "voters" to be counted include all those who voted at the election or rather only those who marked their ballot for the uncontested at-large school board seat. If the former, the petition fell short; if the latter, it met the signature requirement.

The school district told the plaintiffs in advance that all voters must be counted; the plaintiffs turned in their petition thirty minutes before the deadline with fewer signatures. The district determined the petition was facially invalid and declined to accept it or proceed with the referendum. The plaintiffs commenced this declaratory judgment action to force the referendum. The trial court agreed with the school district's interpretation and granted summary judgment denying relief. We retained the plaintiffs' appeal.

On our review, we determine that all voters at the election must be counted, and the plaintiffs' petition was facially invalid as lacking the requisite number of signatures. We conclude that the school district breached a directory


duty under Iowa Code section 277.7 to return the rejected petition, but the plaintiffs are required to show prejudice to obtain judicial relief for that technical violation, which they cannot do after they effectively ran out the clock with no time left to obtain more signatures. Their due process claims fail. We affirm the summary judgment.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The facts are largely undisputed. On November 13, 2019, the Des Moines Independent Community School District (the District) announced its plans to partner with Drake University to build an outdoor athletic stadium on Drake's campus. Drake would contribute $4.5 million, while the District would contribute $15 million in sales tax revenue under the Secure and Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) program. On May 19, 2020, the District's board unanimously passed a resolution that approved the project. The resolution informed eligible voters they could challenge the appropriation of SAVE funds:

Eligible electors of the school district have the right to file with the Board Secretary a petition pursuant to Iowa Code § 423F.4(2)(b), on or before close of business on June 2, 2020, for an election on the proposed use of SAVE Revenue. The petition must be signed by eligible electors equal in number to not less than one hundred or thirty percent of those voting at the last preceding election of school officials under Iowa Code § 277.1, whichever is greater

A valid petition forces either rescission of the resolution or a public referendum on the resolution. To be valid, the petition must be filed within fifteen days of the resolution and include the number of signatures equal to 30% of "the number of voters at the last preceding election of school officials under section 277.1." Id. § 423F.4(2)(b).


The parties agree that the election on November 5, 2019, is the last preceding election of school officials. That election included voting for school board and city council positions. The contested races were for city council seats and district-based school board seats in which only a portion of the electorate could vote, while the only at-large school board position in which all eligible voters could vote was uncontested and drew fewer votes.

District residents organized Save Our Stadiums (SOS) to gather signatures for a petition seeking a referendum under section 423F.4(2)(b). Daniel Pardock, one of the individual plaintiffs in this action, contacted Thomas Ahart, the District's superintendent, on the morning of May 29, 2020, to ascertain the requirements for the petition. Pardock specifically asked how many signatures were needed. The superintendent replied that afternoon that 7,501 signatures were needed. The superintendent also noted that the petition should be submitted by the close of business-5:00 p.m.-on June 2 and that the District would make every effort to review the petition before its board meeting on July 7.

On June 2, the final day to submit a petition, SOS presented a petition to the school board secretary at 4:30 p.m. The petition contained 7,120 signatures-381 fewer than the minimum the superintendent had said were required. SOS, however, took the position that it only needed 30% of the votes cast in the uncontested at-large school board election. Under that theory, 5,353 signatures would trigger a public referendum.

Iowa Code section 277.7 sets forth the procedure to be followed by the school district when it receives a petition on a public measure:

1. A petition filed with the school board to request an election on a public measure shall be examined before it is accepted for filing. If the petition appears valid on its face it shall be accepted for filing. If it lacks the required number of signatures it shall be returned to the petitioners.
2. Petitions which have been accepted for filing are valid unless written objections are filed. Objections must be filed with the secretary of the school board within five working days after the petition was filed. The objection process in section 277.5 shall be followed for objections filed pursuant to this section.

District officials reviewed SOS's petition after June 2. They determined that the petition lacked the minimum number of signatures to trigger a public referendum under section 423F.4(2)(b). To reach that conclusion, the District looked to the total number of voters who turned out at the November 5, 2019 election (25,009). Signatures totaling 30% of that figure-7,502-were needed to trigger a referendum. Accordingly, the district did not accept the petition for filing. The district described the action taken as follows:

Upon receipt of Plaintiffs' Petition, Chief Financial Officer Shashank Aurora performed a facial review of the Petition, simply seeking to ascertain the total number of signatures it contained. The initial count showed Petitioners fell well below the required number under Iowa law, making it facially invalid and insufficient to force a referendum on the resolution, thus [the Board] never accepted it for filing.

The District took no further action after it determined that the petition's 7,120 signatures were insufficient to trigger a referendum. The District did not return the petition to SOS, notwithstanding the directive to do so in Iowa Code section 277.7(1).

The individual plaintiffs and SOS (collectively SOS) commenced this declaratory judgment seeking an adjudication that their petition included


enough signatures to trigger a public referendum, that the District failed to abide by the procedural requirements of section 277.7, and that the District violated their due process rights. SOS sought a writ of mandamus and injunction to force the public referendum. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the District's motion and denied SOS's motion. The court ruled that "[t]he District correctly refused to accept the petition because the number of signatures did not reach the amount needed to trigger a special election." The court found the district technically violated section 277.7(1) by failing to return the petition to SOS but determined no relief was warranted because SOS could not show any resulting prejudice given the lack of time remaining to obtain enough additional signatures. The court ruled as a matter of law the due process claim failed because SOS could not show the district's conduct shocked the conscience. SOS appealed, and we retained the appeal.

II. Standard of Review.

We review a district court's grant of summary judgment for correction of errors at law. Young v. Iowa City Cmty. Sch. Dist., 934 N.W.2d 595, 601 (Iowa 2019). We review constitutional issues de novo. Id. We review rulings on statutory interpretation for correction of errors at law. EMC Ins. Grp. v. Shepard, 960 N.W.2d 661, 668 (Iowa 2021).

III. Analysis.

SOS raises three issues in this appeal: (1) whether the district court erred in...

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