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October 13, 1983


Appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court for Dane County: Robert R. Pekowsky, Judge.

Petition to Review Granted.

Dykman, Bablitch and Cane, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cane

Appellants are taxpayers, voters, and residents of the City of Madison, which is within District No. 4, Area Board of Vocational, Technical, and Adult Education (district). They appeal a judgment dismissing their petition for a writ of mandamus and complaint for declaratory relief against the district. Appellants sought a writ of mandamus ordering the district to comply with the requirements of sec. 38.15, Stats., *fn1 which governs the financing of capital expenditures by district boards. In the alternative, appellants sought a judgment declaring that the district's latest plan to construct new facilities for the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) is subject to the statute's requirements and an injunction to prevent further implementation of the plan absent compliance with the statute. The trial court dismissed the petition and complaint, concluding that sec. 38.15 did not apply because the district's plan was a "building program action" approved prior to January 31, 1980. Because we find no such approval contemplating the district's current plan, we reverse and remand with directions to grant the relief requested in the complaint.

The facts are not disputed. On November 27, 1973, the Wisconsin Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education (state board) discussed alternatives respecting new facilities for MATC. Upon being informed that the district board was under pressure from a number of sources to abandon the concept of an integrated campus, long favored by the state board, and to establish separate facilities in more than one location, the state board voted to "notify District 4 that the State Board is interested in an integrated campus."

On October 15, 1974, the state board adopted a resolution authorizing the district to proceed with plans to develop a central campus facility on East Washington Avenue in the City of Madison. Three weeks later, voters of the district approved by referendum a proposal that the district "borrow the sum of not to exceed $30 million for the purchase or construction of buildings and additions, enlargements and improvements to buildings and for the acquisition of sites and equipment by issuing its general obligation promissory notes." On November 19, 1974, the state board voted to commend the district for its efforts in connection with approval of the referendum. On January 25, 1975, responding to a request from the district, the state board voted to permit the district to borrow $30 million "to build a central facility on a site previously approved by the State Board." The only site previously approved by the state board was the one on East Washington Avenue. About $4.2 million of the $30 million borrowed pursuant to the board's authorization has since been used for construction of new facilities at MATC's satellite campus locations outside of Madison.

By August, 1976, the East Washington Avenue site had apparently been abandoned. The state board adopted a resolution in that month approving the district's petition to construct new MATC facilities at Truax Air Park. On December 30, 1977, however, a circuit court ruled that the district could not proceed with the Truax plan until a satisfactory environmental impact statement was produced. *fn2

The district then shifted its attention to a location in the Town of Burke. The state board adopted a resolution on November 21, 1978, granting the district permission to purchase property at the Burke site. The Burke plan met the same fate as the 1976 Truax plan. *fn3

On April 30, 1980, sec. 38.15 became effective. Chapter 221, 1979 Wis. Laws. The statute requires voter approval of district board intentions to make certain capital expenditures in excess of $500,000, and prohibits use of more than $500,000 of the district reserve funds for such expenditures. This statute is applicable, pursuant to sec. 38.15(3), to "building program actions" approved by the state board after January 31, 1980.

On October 16, 1981, the state board adopted a resolution granting the district permission to construct a multiple location or "split" campus, with renovation and expansion of facilities at existing MATC locations and new construction at Truax. This was the first time the board had endorsed a split-facility campus concept. The projected cost of the current plan is approximately $59 million, with about $50 million of the total attributed to construction plans for the Truax site. Two funds are available for this project. As of February 28, 1983, the area reserve fund, derived from tax dollars, had a balance of $11.6 million. The expansion note fund, derived from the $30 million referendum-approved borrowing, had a balance of $44.3 million.

The trial court concluded that sec. 38.15 did not apply to the MATC project because the 1973 state board vote constituted an approval of a "building program action" prior to January 31, 1980. Based upon our independent review of the record before us, this court disagrees with that Conclusion.

The court of appeals independently decides questions of law without deference to the trial court's Conclusion. Nelson v. Union National Bank, 111 Wis. 2d 313, 315, 330 N.W.2d 225, 226-27 (Ct. App. 1983). As the trial court found, the facts in this case are undisputed, and the question before us is one of law, to wit: whether any action of the state board prior to January 31, 1980, constituted an approval of the district's "building program action" within the meaning of sec. 38.15(3) so as to exclude the present MATC building plans from the referendum requirements of sec. 38.15(1).

Appellants point out that the first sentence of sec. 38.15(3) is a statement of application rather than exemption, implying that board actions before January 31, 1980, are irrelevant to the question of whether the statute applies to later actions. The subsection provides in part: "his section applies to building program actions approved by the board after January 31, 1980." By necessary implication, such actions approved by the state board on or before that date are not subject to the referendum requirement and reserve fund restriction. This Conclusion is supported by the opening words of subsection (1), which makes the referendum requirements "subject to sub. (3)." It is not significant that the clause is a statement of application rather than exception. A statement of application after a stated date must imply an exception to application prior to that date. A contrary construction would render the specification of a date of application meaningless. A statute should not be construed to render any portion or word meaningless. See Donaldson v. State, 93 Wis. 2d 306, 315, 286 N.W.2d 817, 821 (1980).

The district argues that the term "building program actions" in subsection (3) refers to the initial approval of an overall campus concept, rather than approval of specific details of a building project. To construe "building program actions" in so broad a way, however, is to make the word "actions" superfluous in the phrase as a whole. Such a construction is to be avoided. Wisconsin Electric Power Co. v. PSC, 110 Wis. 2d 530, 534, 329 N.W.2d 178, 181 (1983). Both parties advance various documents purported to demonstrate legislative intent concerning sec. 38.15(3). Where a statute is clear on its face, however, we will not look beyond the statutory language in applying it. Wisconsin Electric Power, 110 Wis. 2d at 534, 329 N.W.2d at 181. The language of subsection (3) is plain and was meant to encompass specific building projects such as the split-campus facilities approved by the board in October, 1981. Had the legislature intended to refer only to overall building concepts, ...

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