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Bd. of Educ. v. Regional Bd. of Sch. Trustees





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Stephenson County; the Hon. FRANCIS X. MAHONEY, Judge, presiding. MR. JUSTICE LINDBERG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of Stephenson County which affirmed an order by the Regional Board of School Trustees of Stephenson County granting the detachment of certain territory from the Pearl City Community Unit School District and annexing it to the Freeport Unit School District.

On December 19, 1979, a petition seeking the detachment and annexation of certain territory within Pearl City Community Unit School District No. 200 was filed with the Regional Board of School Trustees of Stephenson County. The petition, which contained a legal description of the property to be detached and the requisite number of signatures, was filed on behalf of six individuals (defendants herein) who occupied the only three residences in the 200-acre territory.

The trial court found that the major impetus behind the petition came from Bruce and Kathryn Helm, who at that time had one child in second grade attending the Pearl City Elementary School, and a set of twins who would be attending kindergarten in September 1980. These were the only children involved in the detachment. The other petitioners apparently signed mainly as a personal favor to the Helms. Their participation was necessary because the Board had turned down a similar petition involving only five acres in 1977. It is clear from the record that if the Board were going to annex at all, it would want to annex this entire area since it formed a pocket, almost an island, and annexation to the Freeport school district would help straighten the district boundaries. The reason given by the Regional Board for the detachment and annexation was "that it was in the best educational interest of the children involved."

Copies of the petition, the notice of public hearing, and a map showing the territory affected by the proposed boundary change were sent to the Pearl City and Freeport school boards, in addition to the Regional Board. However, a report concerning the financial and educational conditions of the two school districts, rather than being prepared in writing and mailed in advance of the hearing to the school boards as required by statute, was instead presented at the hearing itself.

The Regional Board held a hearing on the petition, following publication of the requisite notices, on January 21, 1980. The individual petitioners, representatives from the Pearl City and Freeport school systems, and local citizens addressed the Regional Board. The Helms testified to their belief that the Freeport district offered better educational opportunities and a more diverse academic program for their children. Mrs. Helm stated that the family resided 3.7 miles from Freeport compared to 6.1 miles from Pearl City. She said she and her husband both graduated from large high schools and considered Freeport their home, that they actively participated in the Freeport community, and that they belonged to many organizations there. She further testified that her husband's work was in Freeport, and she herself had taught in the Carl Sandburg School in the Freeport system. She felt strongly that her twins should be placed in separate classes because most experts believe this is better for their development. The Pearl City school system, with only 613 students, in her opinion could not accommodate them in this respect, while the Freeport school system, with 6,322 students, could.

Mrs. Helm also indicated her concern as to whether the Pearl City district offered the curriculum for the educational and academic goals which the Helms had for their children. She said that the Pearl City schools had a vocational curriculum which was oriented around its agricultural constituency. She stated that she was concerned about the breadth of Pearl City's precollege curriculum, and pointed out that in Freeport there was an accelerated math program beginning in the seventh grade which would enable a student to take geometry and calculus at a college level and earn college credit. She believed that Brian, the second grader, had already shown promise and was ready for advanced math courses. She stated his SRA math test in April of 1979 was in the 99th percentile.

Mrs. Helm further testified that the family was interested in encouraging Brian's considerable interest in art and his talent in that area. For this reason they paid out-of-district tuition so that Brian could attend summer school art classes in Freeport. In her opinion, Pearl City's art room facilities were deficient.

Mrs. Helm was also concerned about the absence of any drama class at the Pearl City High School and pointed to the outstanding musicals and plays that were presented by the Freeport schools each year and her personal acquaintance with performers who had gone on to star in college productions elsewhere. She noted the absence of debate class and debate team at Pearl City, while both were available at Freeport. She criticized the Pearl City music program, pointed to the advanced science program in Freeport which enabled participants to take an extra year of high school science, and discussed the deficiency in the foreign language program in the Pearl City schools which, according to her, only offered two years of French. She stated Freeport offered five years of French, Spanish, Latin and German.

She noted the high rate of teacher turnover in the Pearl City schools (34%) compared with the very low turnover in the Freeport system (9%). She also cited a newspaper study of Pearl City graduates for the years 1973, 1974 and 1975 showing that 82 per cent of the graduates remained in the immediate Pearl City area with only 29 per cent completing at least two years of education beyond high school, and only 4.4 per cent completing a degree program. She compared this with Freeport which sent between 50 and 55 per cent of its graduates to college, with half of that number receiving bachelor degrees. In other words, 25 to 30 per cent of Freeport graduates received college degrees compared to 4.4 per cent of the Pearl City graduates. She testified that Freeport had five National Merit semifinal students in the past two years and students from Freeport High School had been accepted at Northwestern, Brown, Yale, University of Chicago, MIT and Harvard. She claimed that none of these students could have met admission standards had they not had the advantage of Freeport's accelerated program.

In her testimony before the Regional Board, Mrs. Helm demonstrated no malice, ill will or personal grievance towards the Pearl City school system. She stated that it was not her intention to downgrade the system, but that it was her belief and that of her husband that the opportunities for their children to obtain their career objectives would be best accommodated by a larger school which offered advanced math, advanced science and foreign language courses.

Mr. Purple, the superintendent of the Pearl City system, and others testified against the detachment petition. As the trial court found, their testimony showed a group of competent and dedicated individuals who were providing programs and curricula as diverse as possible within the constraints of a small school system. There was an impressive defense of the academic and educational opportunities in the Pearl City system, and some cogent observations about the advantages to students of studying in a smaller system. In particular, the dropout rate of less than three percent at the high school level was noted.

Not only participants in the Pearl City school system, but also many of the constituents of the district spoke at the hearing with pride in their educational program. Some of the witnesses referred to children who had graduated from the Pearl City schools and excelled in academics at various colleges and universities.

In sum, the testimony showed that although the orientation of the Pearl City system leaned distinctly toward the agricultural and vocational areas, the schools have a good basic general academic and extracurricular program.

The trial court found that the difference in real estate taxes between the annexing and losing districts, $34, was not a factor. Furthermore, although evidence presented at the hearing suggested that the Pearl City district stood to lose as much as $7,000 in tax revenues if the annexation was granted, other evidence showed that increased State aid in compensation for the drop in assessed ...

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