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Phillips v. Special Hearing Board





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon. Paul A. Logli, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied January 22, 1987.

This appeal concerns a petition to detach certain territory from Rockford Charter School District No. 205 and annex it to Meridian Community Unit School District No. 223. The petition was filed pursuant to section 7-2.4 of the School Code (Code) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 122, par. 7-2.4), which governs petitions to detach territory from special charter school districts. Because the Rockford board of education opposed the petition, a hearing was held before a special hearing board as provided by section 7-2.5 of the Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 122, par. 7-2.5). The hearing board denied the petition without making findings of fact. On administrative review, the circuit court of Winnebago County reversed that order, finding it to be against the manifest weight of the evidence. The Rockford board appeals the circuit court's decision and requests reinstatement of the hearing board's order denying the petition. We affirm the circuit court's decision.

The subject property is approximately 3,000 acres of land along the southern border of District 205. It is bounded on the north and northeast by the Rock and Kishwaukee Rivers, which separate it from the rest of District 205. It is surrounded on its very irregular west, south, and southeast sides by District 223 (Stillman Valley District), to which the petitioners request it be annexed. Eighty percent of the 223 registered voters residing in the subject area signed the detachment petition. At the time of the hearing, 77 school-age children resided there.

The parties stipulated that detachment would not affect the ability of either district to meet the State Board of Education's standards of recognition. They also stipulated that both districts are levying taxes at their maximum rates and that detachment would result in a net yearly loss of $123,520, or .13% of its yearly budget, to District 205 and a net gain of $142,000 to District 223.

At the hearing, 10 detachment-area residents testified, as did representatives of both school districts. Only one detachment-area resident, a teacher for Rockford District 205, testified in opposition to detachment, stating that her children preferred Rockford schools. The other residents who testified strongly supported detachment. Rather than attempt to review the testimony given by each, we will summarize their reasons as follows. They identify strongly with the Stillman Valley (District 223) community, in which several of them or their families were raised and which is a smaller, more closely-knit community than Rockford. They also believe it more closely resembles the semi-rural detachment area. They attend church in Stillman Valley and do the bulk of their shopping, banking, and socializing in that community. They described their own and their children's participation in Stillman Valley community activities, including sports leagues, Scouts, and 4-H clubs, many of which use District 223 facilities. The majority of their children's friends live in Stillman Valley and attend District 223 schools. They believe that their children will greatly benefit from an educational environment shared with their friends in their natural community. One parent noted that more than 70% of Stillman Valley students are involved in extracurricular activities, and a number of the parents stated that such participation would be far more convenient for both themselves and their children in Stillman Valley than it is in Rockford. The Stillman Valley schools have much lower suspension and drop-out rates, which the parents believe reflects better discipline and a better learning environment.

The parents were also dissatisfied with District 205's busing system. Although the District 205 and Stillman Valley grade schools are approximately equal distances from the subject area, the District 205 junior high and high schools are, using estimates given by Rockford officials, anywhere from 2.2 to 8.2 miles farther than the corresponding Stillman Valley schools. Detachment-area children attending high school in District 205 must leave school after the sixth period, when the last bus leaves for the subject area, eliminating any possibility of scheduling an additional, seventh period, class or attending after-school activities unless they can arrange other transportation. The Rockford area schools which serve the detachment area are up to 7.4 miles apart, creating problems for parents who wish to pick up children from more than one school either after school or after extracurricular activities. The parents were also concerned that the Rockford route uses a dangerous turnaround point and requires small children to walk too far to their buses. In addition, the detachment area is in what Rockford officials term a "blue route" to which service is cancelled when the weather is hazardous. However, classes are not cancelled for the rest of the district, requiring the detachment-area students to make up the work missed.

David Miller, the superintendent of District 223, testified that if detachment is allowed, his district can offer the area a flexible bus schedule allowing students to attend all classes. In addition, the District 223 bus service is nearly door-to-door, will not use any dangerous turnaround points, will involve significantly less travel time for most of the students, and will not be cancelled unless classes are cancelled. The Stillman Valley schools are only .4 miles apart, which will allow parents to easily pick up children at more than one school and permit older and younger children from one family to travel at the same time on the same bus.

Mr. Miller also testified to the quality of Stillman Valley's curriculum, including agriculture and horticulture classes not available at Rockford. He stated that Stillman Valley students can elect to attend Rockford's vocational center for special training with transportation provided for them during the regular school day. Stillman Valley students score above the national average on standardized tests and approximately 55% of the high school graduates go on to college or trade schools.

George Aschenbrenner, assistant superintendent of Rockford schools, testified for District 205. He stated that District 205 has excellent facilities, including two swimming pools and a weight room, which Stillman Valley does not have. Also, if the demand is sufficient in any given term, District 205 offers a number of courses, such as drama and advanced math classes, which are not available in Stillman Valley. In addition, District 205 offers specialized alternative programs at various locations throughout Rockford which are not available through District 223. A greater percentage of District 205 teachers have post-graduate degrees than District 223 teachers. District 205 students score at or above the national average on standardized tests, and approximately 50% of Rockford high school graduates continue their educations. He concluded that, while the basic programs at Stillman Valley and District 205 are comparable, District 205's program is more extensive and diverse and its physical facilities, at least at the high school level, are outstanding.

The District 205 transportation director testified to the good safety record of the Rockford district buses and to the fact that detachment would save Rockford only about $2,000 per year in transportation costs. A District 205 architect testified the district has allocated approximately $2 million to make necessary repairs to schools attended by detachment-area students. The District 205 attendance coordinator testified that at least 50 of the detachment petitioners work in Rockford and that the detachment territory was considered as part of a growth area in the district's long-term plans for student distribution and building closings. If the district board had anticipated detachment, its plans may have been substantially different. Arthur Johnson, the superintendent of the Rockford school district, also testified, stating that detachment would disrupt planning for the district.

• 1 The only question presented for review is whether the decision of the hearing board was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Section 7-2.6 of the School Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 122, par. 7-2.6), sets out the duties of a special hearing board:

"The Hearing Board (a) shall hear evidence as to the school needs and conditions of the territory in the area within and adjacent thereto, and as to the ability of the districts affected to meet the standards of recognition as prescribed by the State Board of Education, (b) shall take into consideration the division of funds and assets which will result from any change of boundaries, and the will of the people of the area affected, and (c) shall determine whether it is to the best interests of the schools of the area and the educational welfare of the pupils should such change in boundaries be granted."

Detachment is allowed only where "the benefit to the annexing district and the detachment area * * * clearly outweighs the detriment resulting to the detaching district and the surrounding community as a whole." See Board of Education v. Regional Board of School Trustees (1982), 89 Ill.2d 392, 397; Oakdale Community Consolidated ...

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