An Illinois appellate court, in a unanimous decision in Gwozdz v. Board of Education of Park Ridge-Niles School District No. 64, affirmed the school board’s determination that a student was not a resident of the school district during the 2017-18 school year. Hodges Loizzi attorneys successfully represented the school district in its initial residency hearing in 2018 and through the student’s appeals to the regional office of education, circuit court, and appellate court.
Under Illinois law, students who attend public school must reside within the school district’s boundaries in order to receive tuition-free public education. Based on the collective evidence gathered through the district’s residency verification process and investigation into the student’s residency, the district determined that the student was not a resident of the district for the 2017-18 school year and issued its notice of non-residency.
A residency hearing was held before a board-appointed hearing officer, during which time the student attempted to establish residency in the district by claiming that she and her family (father, mother, and sibling), lived in a one-bedroom apartment above commercial space used for the family business at the in-district address in Niles. Adhering to district residency procedures, the school district presented evidence that the student’s primary residence was a single-family home owned by her parents in another town, outside of the district boundaries.
Following a lengthy hearing, the hearing officer determined that the student was not a legal resident of the district for the 2017-18 school year, concluding that the district’s evidence was both “persuasive and voluminous.” The school board adopted the hearing officer’s findings and determined that the student was not a legal resident of the district and, therefore, could not attend school in the district on a tuition-free basis.
The student appealed the school board’s decision to the Regional Superintendent of Schools, who affirmed the decision. Thereafter, the student sought judicial review of the school board’s decision in the Circuit Court of Cook County pursuant to a writ of certiorari. The circuit court also affirmed the school board’s decision. The student then appealed the circuit court’s order to the Illinois Appellate Court.
Appellate Court Decision and Impact:
Consistent with the lower tribunals, the appellate court affirmed the school board’s decision, holding that its decision was not clearly erroneous. In reaching its decision, the appellate court provided a detailed analysis of Illinois school residency law. Notably, the appellate court emphasized that when determining one’s residence for school district purposes, it “consider[s] not only the dwelling place of the family, but also whether that place is the family’s intended ‘home base’ for day to day living and care of the child.” This was critical, as the hearing officer found that the school district’s evidence “overwhelmingly suggests that the family’s primary base of operations is [another town], not Niles.”
The appellate court also underscored that “the establishment of the residence must not be for the sole intent of attending free school in the district.” It noted that in determining intent, “a person’s acts are to be given more weight than his or her declarations.” This was relevant because the hearing officer highlighted that the student’s family was willing “to tell school officials what is expedient, rather than what is true.”
At the conclusion of its opinion, the appellate court went out of its way to hold that the school district properly followed the procedures set forth in the Illinois School Code for challenging a district’s residency determination.
School boards facing similar issues to District 64 should note the importance of following their residency process and procedures, a thorough and well-documented residency investigation, and a well-written hearing officer report.