Houck v. Eastern Carver County Schools

Mike HOUCK, et al., petitioners, Appellants,
v.
EASTERN CARVER COUNTY SCHOOLS, Chaska, Minnesota, Respondent.

No. A09-1948.

Aug. 17, 2010.

Background: Voters, primarily comprised of school district employees, former employees, and spouses of current and former employees, petitioned for writ of mandamus to compel school district to hold election for school board members. The District Court, Carver County, Richard C. Perkins, J., denied mandamus relief, and voters appealed.

Holdings: The Court of Appeals, Hudson, J., held that:
voters’ appeal of denial of petition for writ of mandamus was not moot;
school board did not fail to perform its duty, as required to entitle voters to mandamus relief; and
(3) voters were not entitled to mandamus relief because alternative relief was available.

Affirmed.
[1] Mandamus 250 16(1)
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k16 Mandamus Ineffectual or Not Beneficial
250k16(1) k. In general. Most Cited Cases

Voters’ appeal of trial court’s denial of petition for writ of mandamus seeking to order school board to hold elec-tion was not moot, even though election date had passed, because, since some of the school board members’ terms would expire before next election, issue was capable of repetition, yet evading review, and the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, when voter’s petitioned for man-damus relief less than two months before general election date.
[2] Mandamus 250 16(1)
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k16 Mandamus Ineffectual or Not Beneficial
250k16(1) k. In general. Most Cited Cases

Mootness is considered a flexible discretionary doctrine, not a mechanical rule that is invoked automatically af-ter an election date has passed, and a writ of mandamus can no longer compel a school district to hold an election.
[3] Appeal and Error 30 781(2)
30 Appeal and Error
30XIII Dismissal, Withdrawal, or Abandonment
30k779 Grounds for Dismissal
30k781 Want of Actual Controversy
30k781(2) k. Nature of action or proceedings in general. Most Cited Cases

Only actual controversies involving school districts will be decided by the court; if the court is unable to grant effectual relief, the issue raised is deemed to be moot resulting in dismissal of the appeal.
[4] Schools 345 61
345 Schools
345II Public Schools
345II(C) Government, Officers, and District Meetings
345k51 District Boards
345k61 k. Appeal from decisions. Most Cited Cases

An appeal of a decision involving a school board is not moot, even if the court is unable to grant effectual relief, if it is capable of repetition yet evades review or if collateral consequences attach to the judgment; an issue may fit this description if it does not remain a live controversy until the completion of appellate review but due to its nature may reoccur.
[5] Schools 345 61
345 Schools
345II Public Schools
345II(C) Government, Officers, and District Meetings
345k51 District Boards
345k61 k. Appeal from decisions. Most Cited Cases

The mere fact that the issue affecting a school board is capable of repetition, of itself, does not necessarily trig-ger application of the mootness exception to bar review.
[6] Schools 345 61
345 Schools
345II Public Schools
345II(C) Government, Officers, and District Meetings
345k51 District Boards
345k61 k. Appeal from decisions. Most Cited Cases

A case involving a school board may not be deemed moot if the case is functionally justiciable and is an im-portant public issue of statewide significance that should be decided immediately.
[7] Mandamus 250 187.9(1)
250 Mandamus
250III Jurisdiction, Proceedings, and Relief
250k187 Appeal and Error
250k187.9 Review
250k187.9(1) k. Scope and extent in general. Most Cited Cases

An order on an application for mandamus relief against a school board based solely on a legal determination is reviewed de novo.
[8] Mandamus 250 1
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k1 k. Nature and scope of remedy in general. Most Cited Cases
Mandamus 250 12
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k12 k. Nature of acts to be commanded.

Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy that is available only to compel a duty clearly required by law.
[9] Mandamus 250 3(1)
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k3 Existence and Adequacy of Other Remedy in General
250k3(1) k. In general.

Mandamus lies only where there is no other plain, speedy, and adequate remedy available.
[10] Mandamus 250 12
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k12 k. Nature of acts to be commanded.

Mandamus may compel the exercise of discretion when required by law; but a writ of mandamus does not con-trol the particular manner in which a duty is to be performed and does not dictate how discretion is to be exercised.
[11] Mandamus 250 79
250 Mandamus
250II Subjects and Purposes of Relief
250II(B) Acts and Proceedings of Public Officers and Boards and Municipalities
250k79 k. Establishment, maintenance, and management of schools.

If a school board has any discretion to perform a duty prescribed by law, a party petitioning for mandamus must show that the failure to perform was so arbitrary and capricious that it constituted a clear abuse of discretion.
[12] Mandamus 250 16(1)
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k16 Mandamus Ineffectual or Not Beneficial
250k16(1) k. In general.

Mandamus will not be ordered where it will prove futile or practically unavailing.
[13] Mandamus 250 79
250 Mandamus
250II Subjects and Purposes of Relief
250II(B) Acts and Proceedings of Public Officers and Boards and Municipalities
250k79 k. Establishment, maintenance, and management of schools.

School board did not fail to perform its duty to hold election at expiration of five of sitting school-board mem-bers’ terms, as required to entitle voters to mandamus relief in the form of order compelling school board to hold election, because school board’s authority to transition from odd-numbered to even-numbered election years neces-sarily meant some sitting board member’s terms would have to vary from four-year term to accomplish transition, and statute setting forth board member’s terms did not provide a clear duty to hold elections at the end of every four-year term, rather gave board discretion over how to transition to even-numbered-year elections as long as transition plan was orderly.
[14] Schools 345 53(1)
345 Schools
345II Public Schools
345II(C) Government, Officers, and District Meetings
345k51 District Boards
345k53 Appointment or Election, Qualification, and Tenure
345k53(1) k. In general.

Statute generally stating the term of office for school-board members at four years does not alone create a re-quirement that an election be held exactly four years after the previous election, regardless of the circumstances. M.S.A. § 123B.09.
[15] Schools 345 53(1)
345 Schools
345II Public Schools
345II(C) Government, Officers, and District Meetings
345k51 District Boards
345k53 Appointment or Election, Qualification, and Tenure
345k53(1) k. In general.

Because school boards must vary from the four-year election cycle in order to transition elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, a successor school board member may qualify later, depending on the transition plan adopted. M.S.A. § 123B.09.
[16] Mandamus 250 10
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k10 k. Nature and existence of rights to be protected or enforced.

Mandamus can only be granted if the petitioner has shown the existence of a legal right to the act demanded which is so clear and complete as not to admit any reasonable controversy.
[17] Mandamus 250 67
250 Mandamus
250II Subjects and Purposes of Relief
250II(B) Acts and Proceedings of Public Officers and Boards and Municipalities
250k67 k. School boards, trustees, and officers.
Mandamus 250 72
250 Mandamus
250II Subjects and Purposes of Relief
250II(B) Acts and Proceedings of Public Officers and Boards and Municipalities
250k72 k. Matters of discretion.

A writ of mandamus may issue to require a public body, such as a school board, to exercise its judgment or dis-charge its function, but it cannot dictate the manner in which a discretionary duty is exercised.
[18] Mandamus 250 67
250 Mandamus
250II Subjects and Purposes of Relief
250II(B) Acts and Proceedings of Public Officers and Boards and Municipalities
250k67 k. School boards, trustees, and officers.
Mandamus 250 72
250 Mandamus
250II Subjects and Purposes of Relief
250II(B) Acts and Proceedings of Public Officers and Boards and Municipalities
250k72 k. Matters of discretion.

When a public body, such as a school board, has discretion as to how to perform a certain duty, the writ of mandamus petitioner must show that failing to exercise that discretion in a given way was so arbitrary or capricious as to be an abuse of discretion; only in rare cases will official discretion be viewed as an abuse of discretion.
[19] Mandamus 250 5
250 Mandamus
250I Nature and Grounds in General
250k5 k. Recourse to or pendency of other proceeding.

Voters seeking writ of mandamus to order school board to hold election for school board members were not en-titled to mandamus relief, because alternative relief was available to voters, who could have filed a petition for the correction of any wrongful act, omission, or error of school board in failing to hold election, and district court would have been required to immediately set a time for hearing, and to issue its findings and a final order for relief as soon as possible. M.S.A. § 204B.44(d).
*229 Syllabus by the Court

A district court properly denies mandamus relief in a school-board-election case when Minnesota law imposes no clear duty to hold an election on a specific date, and the legislature has left implementation of the transition of school-board elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years to the discretion of the school board.
Debra M. Corhouse, Education Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, for appellants.

Patricia A. Maloney, Eric J. Quiring, Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., Minneapolis, MN, for respondent.

Considered and decided by MINGE, Presiding Judge; HUDSON, Judge; and MUEHLBERG, Judge.FN*

FN* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
OPINION

HUDSON, Judge.
Appellants argue that the district court erred by denying a writ of mandamus to *230 compel an Eastern Carver County school-board election on November 3, 2009. Because appellants are not entitled to mandamus relief, we affirm.
FACTS

On April 23, 2009, the school board of respondent Eastern Carver County Schools adopted a resolution to tran-sition school-board general elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years and created a transition plan for that purpose. Discussions to transition school-board elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years had taken place informally since 1994, when the Minnesota legislature passed a law simplifying the transition process. Specifically, the 1994 legislation provided that school boards are authorized to transition elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years so long as the board adopts an “orderly plan for the transition.” 1994 Minn. Laws ch. 646, § 26, subd. 1, at 2502.

The school board’s decision to transition to even-numbered-year elections was made primarily in response to significant election costs and low voter participation during odd-numbered-year elections. For example, only 206 of 28,397 registered voters in the district (approximately 0.7%) voted in the 2007 school-board election. In addition, election costs during odd-numbered-year elections are borne exclusively by the school district, while the county provides almost all staff and voting machines when school-board elections are concurrent with state general elec-tions.

The Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) advised the school board of two options for transitioning to even-numbered-year elections: (1) hold an election in 2009 in which those members elected would serve three-year terms, thereby providing that the first even-numbered-year election would take place in 2012; or (2) extend the terms of current school-board members up for election by one year and hold the next scheduled election in 2010. According to the school district superintendent, the first option would produce no budget savings until year three (2012), while the second option would produce budget savings in the then-current fiscal year (2009). Based on the district’s immediate need to realize budget savings, the school board chose the second option and extended terms for one year. The school board followed the procedure described by the MSBA and adopted a resolution for the transi-tion plan after filling out the MSBA sample resolution form. The plan was introduced and initially considered at a meeting on April 9, 2009, and was later adopted at another meeting on April 23, 2009. Of particular significance to this appeal, the plan extended the terms of four elected board members from four to five years and also extended an appointed board member’s term by one year.

Appellants are all eligible voters in the Eastern Carver County school district and are primarily comprised of school district employees, former employees, and spouses of current and former employees. On August 17, 2009, appellants petitioned the district court for a writ of mandamus to compel the school board to hold an election on No-vember 3, 2009. The matter was heard on August 24, 2009. On August 27, 2009, the district court issued an order denying the writ. The district court determined that the school board had discretion to transition to even-numbered-year elections and was required only to have an orderly plan for the transition. The district court noted that term ex-tensions for school-board members to accommodate changes in election dates had previously been authorized and that the plan adopted by the board was orderly. No school-*231 board election was held in 2009. This appeal fol-lows.
ISSUES
Is appellants’ claim moot?
Did the district court err by denying mandamus relief?
ANALYSIS

[1] Respondent argues that appellants’ claim is moot because the November 3, 2009, election date has passed and a writ of mandamus can no longer compel the school district to hold that election.
[2][3] Mootness is considered “a flexible discretionary doctrine, not a mechanical rule that is invoked automati-cally.” Jasper v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 642 N.W.2d 435, 439 (Minn.2002) (quotation omitted). Only actual contro-versies will be decided by the court. In re Schmidt, 443 N.W.2d 824, 826 (Minn.1989). “If the court is unable to grant effectual relief, the issue raised is deemed to be moot resulting in dismissal of the appeal.” Id. This court does not issue advisory opinions, nor does it decide cases merely to establish precedent. Id.
[4][5] An appeal is not moot, however, if it is capable of repetition yet evades review or if collateral conse-quences attach to the judgment. In re McCaskill, 603 N.W.2d 326, 327 (Minn.1999). An issue may fit this descrip-tion if “it does not remain a live controversy until the completion of appellate review but due to its nature may reoc-cur.” Id. at 328. “However, the mere fact that the issue is capable of repetition, of itself, does not necessarily trigger application of the exception.” Schmidt, 443 N.W.2d at 826.
[6] The United States Supreme Court has determined that the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” excep-tion is “ ‘limited to the situation where two elements are combined: (1) the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there was a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again.’ ” Kahn v. Griffin, 701 N.W.2d 815, 821 (Minn.2005) (quoting Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149, 96 S.Ct. 347, 349, 46 L.Ed.2d 350 (1975)). “The Supreme Court has stated that the passage of an election before a court renders its decision will not necessarily ren-der an election-related case moot; such cases may be exceptions to the mootness doctrine because they are capable of repetition, yet evading review.” Id. at 822 (quotation omitted). A case also is not deemed moot “if the case is ‘functionally justiciable’ and is an important public issue ‘of statewide significance that should be decided immedi-ately.’ ” Id. at 821-22 (quoting State v. Brooks, 604 N.W.2d 345, 347-48 (Minn.2000)).
We conclude that this case may be capable of repetition for two reasons. First, two of respondent’s school-board members were elected in 2007, which means that their terms were originally set to expire in 2011. Obviously, no election will take place in 2011 under the new even-numbered-year school-board-election system. Second, the chal-lenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration. Although the school board adopted the transition plan on April 23, 2009, appellants did not petition the district court for a writ of mandamus-or seek any other relief-until August 17, 2009; leaving little time for this matter to be fully litigated prior to the original November 3, 2009 election date. Thus, to some extent, appellants themselves have contributed to their present *232 predicament. That said, litigation in general, and election disputes in particular, are fraught with inher-ent uncertainties and potential legitimate delays. Thus, even if appellants had acted more timely in seeking relief, any attempt to force an election to occur on a date certain-here, November 3, 2009-would have been a difficult proposition, irrespective of the merits of their claim. Therefore, we exercise our discretionary power to reach the merits of this claim.

[7] The issue before this court is whether the district court erred in denying the specific relief requested-a writ of mandamus. An order on an application for mandamus relief based solely on a legal determination is reviewed de novo. Breza v. City of Minnetrista, 725 N.W.2d 106, 110 (Minn.2006).
[8][9][10][11][12] “Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy … that is available only to compel a duty clearly re-quired by law.” N. States Power Co. v. Minn. Metro. Council, 684 N.W.2d 485, 491 (Minn.2004) (citation omitted). Mandamus lies only “where there is no other plain, speedy, and adequate remedy available.” In re Welfare of Child of S.L.J., 782 N.W.2d 549, 553 (Minn.2010) (quotation omitted). Mandamus may also compel the exercise of discre-tion when required by law. Mendota Golf, LLP v. City of Mendota Heights, 708 N.W.2d 162, 171 (Minn.2006). But a writ of mandamus “does not control the particular manner in which a duty is to be performed and does not dictate how discretion is to be exercised.” Id. If the entity has any discretion to perform the duty, a petitioning party must show that the failure to perform was so arbitrary and capricious that it constituted a clear abuse of discretion. State v. Pero, 590 N.W.2d 319, 323 (Minn.1999). Furthermore, “mandamus will not be ordered where it will prove futile or practically unavailing.” State ex rel. Longman v. Kachelmacher, 255 Minn. 255, 258, 96 N.W.2d 542, 545 (1959).

To obtain mandamus relief in district court, appellants were required to show: (1) that the school board failed to perform an official duty clearly imposed by law; (2) that, as a result of the failure, appellants suffered a public wrong specifically injurious to appellants; and (3) that no other adequate legal remedy exists. N. States Power Co., 684 N.W.2d at 491; Minn.Stat. § 586.02 (2008).
[13] Appellants argue that the school board failed to perform its duty to hold an election at the expiration of five of the sitting school-board members’ terms. Appellants contend that, because school-board members are limited by statute to four-year terms, a transition plan extending those terms is, by definition, not “orderly.” We disagree.

In 1994, the Minnesota legislature modified the requirements for school-board elections. Among other changes, the legislature required that school-board general elections be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November “of either the odd-numbered or the even-numbered year.” 1994 Minn. Laws ch. 646, § 18, subd. 1, at 2449; see also Minn.Stat. § 205A.04, subd. 1 (2008). The legislature also provided a transition schedule for transi-tions from odd- to even-numbered years that would take place between 1995 and 1998. See 1994 Minn. Laws ch. 646, § 26. The schedule provided for three-year terms to accomplish the transitions through 1998, but it did not mandate any schedule or mode of transition for transitions taking place after 1998. Id. Instead, the legislature stated that “[a] political subdivision that later determines to change from an odd-numbered-year election*233 to an even-numbered-year election may do so by adoption of a new resolution or ordinance that contains an orderly plan for transition.” Id., subd. 1. Thus, the legislature gave political subdivisions discretion over how to accomplish a transi-tion after 1998.
[14] By statute, the term of office for an elected school board member is four years, commencing on the first Monday in January and continuing until a successor qualifies. Minn.Stat. § 123B.09, subd. 1 (2008). But generally stating the term of office for school-board members does not alone create a requirement that an election be held ex-actly four years after the previous election, regardless of the circumstances. We note, for example, that school-board-member terms have been extended in the past. Prior to the 1994 amendment to Minn.Stat. § 205A.04, school-board elections were held on the third Tuesday in May, unless the school board passed a resolution providing for a November election. Minn.Stat. § 205A.04, subd. 1 (1992). The 1994 legislature provided that, when a school board changed its general election from May to November, all board-member terms were lengthened to expire on January 1. 1994 Minn. Laws ch. 646, § 18, subd. 1; Minn.Stat. § 205A.04 (1994).
[15] Furthermore, the school board’s authority to transition from odd-numbered to even-numbered years neces-sarily means that sitting board members will not serve for exactly four years. A sitting board member would have to vary from the four-year term in order to accomplish the transition by serving for one, three, or five years depending on the transition plan adopted. We also observe that a school-board member’s term will last until a successor quali-fies. Minn.Stat. § 123B.09, subd. 1. Because school boards must vary from the four-year election cycle in order to transition elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, a successor may qualify later, depending on the transition plan adopted.
[16] In any case, the statute does not provide a clear duty to hold elections at the end of every four-year term despite the power to transition from odd-numbered- to even-numbered-year terms. See Mendota Golf, 708 N.W.2d at 174 (concluding that the presence of alternative ways to reconcile a conflict indicates the lack of a clear duty to reconcile that conflict in a specific way). Mandamus can only be granted if “the petitioner has shown the existence of a legal right to the act demanded which is so clear and complete as not to admit any reasonable controversy.” Day v. Wright County, 391 N.W.2d 32, 34 (Minn.App.1986), review denied (Minn. Sept. 24, 1986). Nothing in the gov-erning statutes specifically or definitively places a duty on the school board to carry out the election-year transition in a specific way. Nor do they “clearly and positively” provide appellants with a right to demand that an election be carried out every four years despite the school board’s authority to transition from odd-numbered- to even-numbered-year elections. See Child of S.L.J., 782 N.W.2d at 553 (requiring that the law “clearly and positively” impose a duty before mandamus will be issued) (quotation omitted). Instead, the school board has discretion over how to transition to even-numbered-year elections as long as the transition plan adopted is “orderly.”
[17][18] A writ of mandamus may issue to require a public body to exercise its judgment or discharge its func-tion, but it cannot dictate the manner in which a discretionary duty is exercised. Ziols v. Rice County Bd. of Comm’rs, 661 N.W.2d 283, 286 (Minn.App.2003). When a body has discretion as to how to perform a certain *234 duty, the writ petitioner must show that failing to exercise that discretion in a given way was so arbitrary or capri-cious as to be an abuse of discretion. Pero, 590 N.W.2d at 323. Only in “rare cases” will official discretion be viewed as an abuse of discretion. Mendota Golf, 708 N.W.2d at 176 (quotation omitted). The school board must have the discretion to vary from a four-year term in order to implement the transition; otherwise no transition could ever occur. The plan adopted here was a very simple way of transitioning to an even-numbered-year election cycle. It was an efficient, economical, and convenient way to effect the change. Appellants have not shown that this exer-cise of discretion was arbitrary or capricious.
[19] Furthermore, appellants are not entitled to relief because alternative remedies were available. Minnesota election law, which applies to school-board elections, allows individuals to file a petition for the correction of “any wrongful act, omission, or error” of “any … individual charged with any duty concerning an election.” Minn.Stat. § 204B.44(d) (2008); see also Minn.Stat. § 205A.02 (2008). Upon receipt of the petition, the district court must “im-mediately set a time for a hearing” and issue its findings and a final order for relief “as soon as possible after the hearing.” Minn.Stat. § 204B.44(d). Appellants have not stated why such an action would not have been adequate, especially since the statute mandates expediency.

Appellants could also have pursued a declaratory-judgment action. Although they claimed in district court that a declaratory judgment would take too long to ensure that the election took place, appellants did not explain why they waited for four months after learning of the transition plan before taking any action at all. A declaratory judgment, if successful, would have obtained the same result for appellants. See generally Minn.Stat. §§ 555.01-.16 (2008). Therefore, we conclude that other adequate remedies were available, and the district court properly denied manda-mus relief.
DECISION

Because the law does not clearly and positively require that an election be held every four years, despite the school board’s authority to make an orderly transition from odd-numbered- to even-numbered-year elections, and because other adequate remedies were available to appellants, the district court did not err in denying mandamus relief.

Affirmed.

Minn.App.,2010.
Houck v. Eastern Carver County Schools
787 N.W.2d 227, 259 Ed. Law Rep. 220
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