Too-long-didn’t-read version: A close look at the legislative history of the relevant statutes shows that voters can validly petition to put the demolition of a school building onto the ballot. Moreover, the contrary interpretation would apply not just to voter petitions but also to school board decisions, leading to the (absurd) conclusion that no one—not even a school board—has the power to demolish a school building. So I think the district should take a second look at the statutes in light of their legislative history. Now here’s the long version:
There are two key Iowa statutes that enable school districts to dispose of school property. For ease of reference, I’ll call them the “Petition Statute” and the “Board Statute.” The Petition Statute gives the voters the power to “direct the sale, lease, or other disposition of any schoolhouse” or other district property, via a petition process to put such an issue on the ballot. The Board Statute gives school boards the power to “sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of a schoolhouse” or other district property, and provides a procedure for doing so. The Hoover petition raises the issue of whether “disposing of” property under these statutes can include demolition.
To interpret the language of these statutes, it’s useful to know their history. Originally, the Petition Statute was the exclusive way for school districts to sell, lease, or dispose of property. (See this case at page 581 and this case at page 260.) This proved cumbersome, so the legislature passed the Board Statute, enabling school boards to dispose of school property without an election. An accompanying statute provided that the board’s power was “independent of” and “additional to” the voters’ power under the Petition Statute.
The co-existence of these two statutes inevitably raised questions. In 1979, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office stated in a formal opinion that the Petition Statute grants “a much broader and more flexible power which resides in the electors of the school district than that held by the board of directors. The policy behind the distinction is the fundamental democratic principle that the electors are entitled to hold more power,” and that the board’s power under the Board Statute was “much more restricted.” As a result, the opinion concluded that when the district sold a schoolhouse under the Board Statute, it faced restrictions on the use of the proceeds that it would not face under the Petition Statute.
The Decorah case
In 2007, another issue arose about the relationship between the two statutes. What if a school board voted to demolish a building, and then the voters filed a petition to lease that same building? The court in that case held that the voter petition was valid and that the election had to go forward, even though the school board had already voted to demolish the building.