The Illinois School Code makes it clear that “only resident pupils of a school district may attend the schools of the district without payment of the tuition required to be charged under Section 10-20.12a.” In this instance, the Court confirmed the determination of the Board of Education that the student was a non-resident. In reaching its conclusion, the Court noted that the only requirement for residence in a school district is “dwelling in the school district.” The Court found that establishment of such a residence, even for a temporary purpose, is sufficient to entitle children to attend school in the district as long as the residence was not established with the sole intent of attending school in that district. The appellate court emphasized that in determining intent, a person’s acts are to be given more weight than [his or] her declarations. The appellate court continued that when determining a student’s residence for school purposes, the dwelling place of the family is considered along with whether that place is the family’s intended “home base” for day to day living and care of the child. Here, the “home base” was shown by the school’s investigation to be outside the boundaries of the school district.
A full copy of the above decision is available at the following link:
Gwozdz v. Board of Education of Park Ridge-Niles School District No. 64, 2021 IL App (1st) 200518 (March 5, 2021)
A detailed summary of the decision of the appellate court in this matter is set forth hereafter.
Summary of Decision
2021 IL App (1st) 200518 (March 5, 2021)
During the 2017-18 school year, M.G. was enrolled as a 7th grader at Emerson Middle School, in Park Ridge-Niles School District No. 64 ( the “District”). The family listed 7544 W. Oakton Street as their address in Niles, Illinois. That property is a 2 story building with business space on the ground floor and residential apartments on the second floor. Due to questions about the lease presented by the family (10 year lease from the family to itself) the District looked further into the residency. The District uses a software system known as CLEAR, which identifies students with potential residency issues. The CLEAR program showed the family owned the building on Oakton Street in Niles and another address for the family in Des Plaines, outside the District. District officials were unable to confirm M.G.’s Niles residency and began an investigation. The District used a private licensed investigator JZ who conducted surveillance on 5 different days and 3 nights of the Des Plaines address. Taking notes and photos, he observed M.G. and her older brother, leaving and entering the Des Plaines residence throughout the day. On the three nights he observed the Des Plaines residence, JZ observed the family going into the house and staying in the residence there late into the night until he left. He then observed the family leaving the house early the next morning. JZ saw M.G. being dropped off at a convenience market near the school, not at the actual school. Although he did not know for sure, he assumed that it was to avoid suspicion from the school as to why M.G. would need to be dropped off when the apartment was only a few blocks from the school. JZ “spot-checked” the Niles building and did not see any of the family’s cars there. Based on JZ investigation report, school officials concluded M.G. was not a resident student and sent the family a letter indicating not a district resident. The District explained that this determination was based on the following evidence:
- surveillance conducted by a private licensed investigator on multiple dates;
- Clear Batch Processing flagging [plaintiffs’] address information; and
- questionable residency documents presented to the school.
The letter provided for a meeting with the Superintendent, and a right to request a hearing before the District’s hearing officer if they did not agree with the determination of the Superintendent following the meeting. The family’s attorney invited school officials to visit the apartment to see if the family resided there, but at that point district officials suspected it was quite likely the family actually lived in the apartment now that they knew of the District’s surveillance and noted that in their experience, families under suspicion of residency issues tend to alter their behavior once they learn of the District’s investigations. The family’s attorney did request a hearing and requested “a true copy of all video and paper reports and Illinois license relating to the alleged ‘surveillance conducted by a licensed private investigator on multiple dates,’ the full file of ‘CLEAR batch processing’ and the purported purpose of this entity and each and every document [which] is ‘questionable’ and a specific list of her training and qualifications which would allow [school officials] to opine on such matters.” The District letter notified the family that “[a]t least 3 calendar days before the hearing, both parties must disclose to each other all written evidence and testimony that it will submit during the hearing and a list of witnesses that it may call to testify during the hearing.”
Family Testimony at Hearing
The family testified at the hearing that they owned the building in Niles and operated a flower business on the first floor. Other commercial spaces on the first floor were rented to other businesses. The second floor of the building consisted of eight apartments, seven of them rented to others. The family claimed that they kept Apartment 2, a one bedroom, one bath unit for themselves and that the apartment has been the family’s primary residence since December 2012. The family acknowledged they also owned a single-family home in Des Plaines, outside of the school district. The parents testified that M.G. and her brother, who was a junior at Maine South High School, shared the bedroom and the mother and father slept in the family room. They stated their 1st floor flower business required long hours of work and the apartment above was convenient for that purpose. The location of the Niles apartment was close to the District’s middle school, which was convenient for M.G. to walk to school during the parents’ working hours. The family owned the property in a limited liability company and paid rent to the company. The LLC records introduced at the hearing however did not show any rent checks being deposited. The company register also showed that the check numbers of the rent checks presented at hearing did not correspond to the rent checks for the same time frame. The family testified M.G. did the family’s laundry and the apartment had no facilities, so they used the washer/dryer at their Des Plaines house. They stated that on laundry days, M.G. was dropped off at the Des Plaines house and she would stay there until the laundry was finished, but that M.G. always stayed at the Niles apartment for the night. The family presented documents at the hearing, including apartment photos taken within 10-14 days of the hearing showing rooms being renovated from the Des Plaines residence, to demonstrate that the Des Plaines house was unavailable as a residence. The family also provided photos of large rental decorative items which their business provides for weddings and parties which they testified are stored at the Des Plaines residence. The family documents included M.G.’s vaccination record, mail from their credit union, vehicle registration and library card listing the Niles address. There was also a Home Depot credit card statement mailed to plaintiffs at that address. The father’s driver’s license had 7544 W. Oakton St. Apt. 2 in Niles as his address. The family acknowledged that although they stated the family moved into the apartment in December 2012, M.G. was enrolled in a school located in the Des Plaines School District through the end of the 2015-16 school year.
Testimony of School Officials at Hearing
At the hearing, the District presented the lengthy reports from CLEAR regarding the family, the investigator’s report and photographs, and registration documents and materials. School officials presented the following information in support of the determination that M.G. was a nonresident:
- The lease and rent checks,
- G.’s enrollment in a Des Plaines district school for several years after the family stated it moved to the Niles address in 2012,
- The fact that it was unlikely the family lived in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment when there was a larger single family home in Des Plaines.
Decision of Hearing Officer
The hearing officer found that plaintiffs made a “thin” prima facie case of residence in the District by the family’s testimony and a showing of some mail sent to the Niles address. The burden thus shifted to the District to disprove residency, which the officer found was done by evidence that was “both persuasive and voluminous.” He believed “the complete truth of the situation is that the family somewhat fluidly moves about between the Des Plaines house and the Niles apartment, based on their needs and their schedules on a day to day basis.” He found, however, that “[t]he test is one of residence” and “no one factor, standing alone, determines a student’s residence in and of itself.” The hearing officer did not find the family’s testimony that M.G. spent all her nights at the apartment credible, citing the investigator’s report. When confronted with evidence that the family spent nights at the Des Plaines home, they responded that M.G. slept at the Niles apartment except for those nights. He also pointed to evidence that M.G. was enrolled in a Des Plaines district school through the 2015-16 school year, even though the family testified that they moved to the Niles apartment in 2012. He believed that the family was “willing to tell school officials what is expedient, rather than what is true.” While the District’s evidence was not “wholly conclusive,” it did “overwhelmingly suggest[ ] that the family’s primary base of operations is Des Plaines, not Niles.” The hearing officer concluded that M.G. was a resident of Des Plaines during the 2017-18 school year, and not a resident of the Park Ridge-Niles District. “As such, the District must charge tuition for her attendance during the just completed school year.”
Board of Education Decision on Review of Hearing Officer
The Hearing Officer decision was then forwarded to the Board of Education, along with the written objections submitted by the family’s attorney, for its review and determination regarding residency. The Board affirmed the determination that M.G. was not a resident of the District during the 2017-2018 school year.
Decision of Regional Superintendent on Appeal
As provided in the School Code, the family then appealed the Board of Education decision to Dr. Bruce R. Brown, the regional superintendent of schools for Northern Cook County. Dr. Brown affirmed the Board’s determination.
Appeal to the Circuit Court
The family then appealed the decision of the Regional Superintendent to the Circuit Court which affirmed the superintendent’s decision to affirm the Board’s determination.
Decision of the Appellate Court
The appellate court noted that the only requirement for residence in a school district is “dwelling in the school district.” [citing to Ashley v. Board of Education, 275 Ill. 274 (1916) The Court found that establishment of such a residence, even for a temporary purpose, is sufficient to entitle children to attend school in the district but that is only true if the temporary residence was not established for the sole benefit of attending school in that district. The appellate court emphasized that when determining one’s residence for school district purposes we consider 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. Importantly, the establishment of the residence must not be for the sole intent of attending free school in the district. In determining intent, a person’s acts are to be given more weight than [his or] her declarations.”
The Appellate Court reviewed the decision of the Board of Education. The Board of Education adopted the hearing officer’s findings and conclusion. Taking account of all the evidence presented, the hearing officer found no intention by plaintiffs to reside in Niles and that the evidence “overwhelmingly suggested that the family’s primary base of operations is Des Plaines, not Niles.” The appellate court importantly noted that in the review of a residency determination under the School Code, it reviews the decision of the Board of Education and that it is the responsibility of the Board, not the courts, to weigh the evidence and resolve any conflicts in the evidence. The standard of review requires the Court to affirm the Board’s determination if there is any competent evidence in the record to support it.