Taxpayer Suit Establishes that School Board Policies Have the Force of Law
On July 20, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the decision of the circuit court in Veazey v. Rich Township High School District 227, et al. and sent the case back to the circuit court with instruction that Mr. Veazey, a taxpayer in District 227, had the right to sue the Board of Education, along with a former Board member, and a former District employee, to recoup funds that Mr. Veazey claims were expended in violation of the Board’s anti-nepotism policy.
At the heart of this case is a vote by the Board in the spring of 2015 to reinstate Dr. Bridget Imoukhuede to her position as Assistant Principal and pay her over $144,000 in back pay and attorneys’ fees. Mr. Imoukhuede, a Board member for District 227 at the time and Dr. Imoukhuede’s husband, cast the deciding vote for reinstatement and for the back pay award. Although the Board had an anti-nepotism policy in place at the time and the issue of his conflict was raised, Mr. Imoukhuede still voted in favor of paying his wife.
Mr. Frederick Veazey, an Olympia Fields resident, brought suit as a taxpayer in the District seeking to reclaim those funds for the District on the basis that the vote was unlawful and in violation of the Board’s anti-nepotism policy. The circuit court dismissed the case on the grounds that Mr. Veazey did not have standing to bring the suit. In other words, the court found that Mr. Veazey did not have a right to challenge the Board’s vote. The Appellate Court disagreed. The case now continues in the circuit court on the merits of the underlying claims.
Two holdings from the Appellate Court will have importance to Boards of Education going forward: first, it is now clear that taxpayers are empowered to challenge the financial actions of a Board of Education, specifically those financial actions that are alleged to run contrary to governing Board policy. Boards, as always, must pay careful attention to Board policy and procedures particularly when expending public funds. Second, and related to the first, the Appellate Court found that Board policies are not merely internal rules but “carry the force of law.” While in this case, the Board was in a defensive posture, this holding will prove useful to Boards in the future when seeking to enforce provisions of their own policies.
In a final interesting turn to this matter, since the filing of Mr. Veazey’s lawsuit, the Board discovered that Dr. Imoukhuede, at the time she requested and went through her dismissal hearing and was reinstated to the Board, had retired and was collecting a full pension through the Teachers Retirement System. While Mr. Imoukhuede knew of her retirement, he never told his fellow Board members. Accordingly, the current District 227 Board sued the Imoukhuedes for fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of its anti-nepotism policy, and that suit is currently pending in the circuit court.