School District Boundary Changes – Annexation/Detachment Update
Apr 10, 2018
The Second Judicial District has issued the first Illinois Appellate Court decision interpreting School Code Section 7-6’s requirements for deciding annexation/detachment petitions, as altered by Public Act 99-475 effective January 1, 2016. The unanimous opinion of the three-justice panel in Shepard, et al. v. Regional Board of School Trustees, 2018 IL App (2d) 170407 (March 28, 2018) affirmed the DeKalb County Circuit Court judgment upholding the regional board’s denial of petitioners’ request to detachment their properties from DeKalb CUSD 428 and to annex them to Sycamore Community Unit School District 428. The plaintiffs-appellants in Shepard acknowledged that P.A. 99-475 amended the law pertaining to school district boundary changes, but maintained that regional boards and reviewing courts were still required to weigh the same factors considered in past cases.
After recapping the judicial analysis used in boundary change decisions that predated the 2016 amendments of Section 7-6 (105 ILCS 5/7-6), the Second District panel rejected this contention: In comparing the prior version of the law with the 2016 version, a stark difference is readily apparent: whereas the prior version (as interpreted by our supreme court) allowed the regional board (and ultimately the reviewing court) to consider multiple factors simultaneously in determining whether a detachment petition should be granted, the 2016 version require[s] the regional board to first determine that there would be a significant direct educational benefit to the petitioners’ children if the petition were granted . . . Absent such a finding, the regional board is not to consider other factors, such as the community-of-interest and whole-child factors.
The Shepard detachment petitioners did not dispute that Districts 427 and 428 offered equally good educational programs. They relied mainly on community-of-interest arguments, even though the Regional Board held the hearing on their April 2016 boundary change petition more than nine months after the amendments to Section 7-6 took effect. Petitioners also asserted that safety concerns relevant to “educational benefit” were present at District 428’s Cortland Elementary School, citing an isolated and since-remediated 2014 leak of carbon monoxide from a Waste Management landfill located near that attendance center. They also cited a 55 mph speed limit for trucks traveling to the landfill on a road which passed the school. However, the Court on its own initiative took judicial notice that, under provisions of the Cortland Town Code, vehicles passing the school on days when children are present may drive only 20 mph.
Although it is not yet known whether plaintiffs will ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the Second District ruling, the Shepard decision is likely to influence litigation strategy and outcomes in other annexation/detachment cases now pending before regional boards – as well as whether to petition for school boundary changes in the first instance. At this juncture, the decision will also serve as useful precedent in other annexation/detachment cases on administrative review in the circuit and appellate courts.