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UPPER BUCKS COUNTY VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL SCHOOL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION ET AL. v. UPPER BUCKS COUNTY AREA VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL SCHOOL JOINT COMMITTEE ET AL. (09/16/82)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: September 16, 1982.

UPPER BUCKS COUNTY VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL SCHOOL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
UPPER BUCKS COUNTY AREA VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL SCHOOL JOINT COMMITTEE ET AL., APPELLEES

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County in the case of Upper Bucks County Vocational Technical School Education Association, Winfield J. Hill, John Graf and Jamie Wescott v. Upper Bucks County Area Vocational-Technical School Joint Committee, Upper Bucks County Area Vocational-Technical School Joint Board, Palisades School District, Quakertown School District and Pennridge School District, No. 81-02489-06-1.

COUNSEL

Catherine C. O'Toole, for appellants.

John J. Hart, with him John M. Demcisak and Claire G. Biehn, for appellees.

Donna S. Weldon, Counsel, and Michael A. Davis, Chief Counsel, for Amicus Curiae, Department of Education.

President Judge Crumlish, Jr. and Judges Rogers, Blatt, MacPhail and Doyle. Opinion by Judge Doyle. Judge Mencer did not participate in the decision in this case.

Author: Doyle

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 86]

This is an appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County dated May 27, 1981, which dismissed, in response to the filing of preliminary objections,*fn1 an action for a declaratory judgment on the question of whether the Upper Bucks County Vocational-Technical School Joint Board (Board)*fn2 must

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 87]

    schedule at least 180 half*fn3 days of instruction at the Upper Bucks County Vocational-Technical School (School) during each school year. The court based its dismissal on its conclusion that the plaintiffs to the action, the appellants here,*fn4 lacked standing to pursue the declaratory relief they requested. For the reasons which follow, we will reverse and remand.

The factual nexus which gave rise to the proceedings before us is undisputed. From September 3 through September 24, 1980, members of the Upper Bucks County Vocational-Technical School Education Association (Association) engaged in a lawful strike of the School which resulted in the loss of sixteen instructional days. Following this strike, the Board, which had initially adopted a school calendar providing for 180 half days of instruction, adopted a new calendar for the 1980-81 school year which provided for only 164 half days of instruction. The Association, believing that this shortening of the school year was in violation of the terms of the Board's Program Plan Application agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (Department) and/or the provisions of Section 1501 of the Public School Code of 1949, 24 P.S. § 15-1501,*fn5 subsequently contacted the Department,

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 88]

    and upon being informed that the Department intended to take no legal action, joined with the individual appellants here in filing an action for declaratory judgment. This action was subsequently amended to join the Palisades, Quakertown and Pennridge school districts as indispensable parties, and, as we noted above, was subsequently dismissed, upon the filing of preliminary objections, based on the court's conclusion that the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek the declaratory relief they requested. In dismissing this action, the court concluded (1) that the individual plaintiffs lacked standing in their capacity as residents of the participating school districts since they were neither vocational-technical students nor the parents of such students, (2) that the individual plaintiffs lacked standing in their capacity as taxpayers since "compliance or noncompliance with the 180-day rule would have no pecuniary effect upon a non-teacher taxpayer[,]" and (3) that the plaintiff Winfield J. Hill and the Association lacked standing in their respective capacities as a teacher at the School and as a representative of teachers at the School since "the teachers have other remedies to enforce whatever rights they have against the school board for the days lost. . . ." The present appeal followed.

Before this Court, the appellants allege that the court of common pleas erred as a matter of law by concluding that they lacked standing to seek the declaratory relief they requested. We agree.

The stated purpose of the Declaratory Judgments Act (Act), 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 7531-7541, "is to settle and afford relief to any person from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to right, status and legal relations affected by a statute." Snider v. Shapp, 45 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 337, 346,

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 89405]

A.2d 602, 607 (1979). Being remedial, the provisions of the Act are to "be liberally construed and administered." Section 7541(a) of the Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 7541(a). Section 7533 of the Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 7533, defines the interest required by a party seeking a declaratory judgment by providing in pertinent part as follows:

Any person . . . whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute . . . may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the . . . statute . . . and obtain a declaration of rights, status, or other legal relations thereunder.

Of course, "[t]he law is quite clear in Pennsylvania that the fact that [a] plaintiff will be generally adversely affected does not in itself put [a] plaintiff in the class authorized to seek a declaratory judgment." Pennsylvania Barber Schools, Inc. v. Alfano, 18 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 54, 56, 333 A.2d 834, 835 (1975). Instead, a plaintiff must establish an interest which "must be more than a general interest and must be a direct, substantial and present interest, as contrasted with a remote or speculative, interest." Kauffman v. Osser, 441 Pa. 150, 155, 271 A.2d 236, 239 (1970); William Penn Parking Garage, Inc. v. City of Pittsburgh, 464 Pa. 168, 346 A.2d 269 (1975). In the case of actions initiated by taxpayers to prevent the illegal waste or expenditure of funds, however, our Supreme Court has recognized that

[c]ertain cases exist which grant standing to taxpayers where their interest arguably does not meet the requirements of Wm. Penn, . . . . The relaxing of those requirements in those cases or, more appropriately, the granting of standing where the degree of causal connection between the action complained of and the injury alleged is small, can be explained by the policy behind

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 90]

    granting taxpayers standing. . . . "[A]lthough many reasons have been advanced for granting standing to taxpayers, the fundamental reason for granting standing is simply that otherwise a large body of governmental activity would be unchallenged in the Courts."

Application of Biester, 487 Pa. 438, 444-45, 409 A.2d 848, 852 (1979) (quoting Faden v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, 424 Pa. 273, 278, 227 A.2d 619, 621-22 (1967)).

Applying the above principles to the facts of this case, we initially believe that the appellants Hill, John Graf, and Jamie Wescott established a justiciable interest in the proceedings below in their capacity as taxpayers of the school districts which finance the School. Undisputed evidence was presented to the court of common pleas, in the form of the testimony of Francis J. Moran, Deputy Commissioner for Basic Education at the Department, that the Department intended to reduce the Schools' 1981-82 school year subsidy by approximately $30,000 if the Board scheduled only 164 half days of instruction during the 1980-81 school year. Although the court apparently placed no emphasis on this fact in light of its factual finding that this loss would be offset by savings from teachers' and other employees' salaries not incurred as a result of the strike, our careful review of the record has failed to reveal substantial evidence to support this factual finding since, inter alia, it was still unclear at the time of the court's decision whether or not the teachers would be paid for a full year,*fn6 and since absolutely no

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 91]

    evidence was submitted pertaining to the payment of non professional employees at the School. But even if the record supported a finding that the plaintiffs would not suffer a direct pecuniary loss in their capacities as taxpayers, we believe they nonetheless have standing under the exception to the "direct interest" requirement enunciated in Biester since there is not a great probability here that others, such as students and the Department, affected by a Board decision to shorten a school year following a strike will challenge that action in court. Accordingly, we believe the court of common pleas erred as matter of law by sustaining the preliminary objections of the school districts to the standing of the individual appellants herein to seek the declaratory relief they requested in their capacities as taxpayers of the districts.

In view of our decision above, we do not believe that it is necessary in this case to address the question of whether the individual appellant's have standing in their capacity as residents of the school districts, whether the appellant Hill has standing in his capacity as a teacher, and whether the Association has standing in its capacity as a representative of teachers, since the individual appellants here, acting in their capacity as taxpayers, will be able to pursue the only relief requested by all the appellants, viz. a declaratory judgment on the question of whether the Board is required to schedule a minimum of 180 half days of instruction at the School.

Accordingly, we will enter the following

Order

Now, September 16, 1982, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, dated May 27, 1981, and docketed at No. 81-02489-06-1, is reversed,

[ 69 Pa. Commw. Page 92]

    and the record of this case is hereby remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Judge Mencer did not participate in the decision in this case.

Disposition

Reversed and remanded.


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