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Ayaz Merchant v. Reg'l Board of School Trustees

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

September 30, 2014

AYAZ MERCHANT, CHARLES T. TAYLOR, CHERYL D. TAYLOR, ELSIE I. DIETZ, DOROTHY B. TAYLOR, THOMAS F. EARTH, MARIA G. EARTH, ANAND K. PATEL, PINAL PATEL, and DAWN DAHL, as the Statutory " Committee of 10," Petitioners-Appellees,
v.
REGIONAL BOARD OF SCHOOL TRUSTEES OF LAKE COUNTY, ILLINOIS; ALLISON BAKER-FRANK, Board President; DON FONTANA, Trustee; JULIE GONKA, Trustee; LARRY McSHANE, Trustee; BARRY J. CARROL, Trustee; ROY E. LUCKE, Trustee; JAMES C. MITCHELL, JR., Trustee; ROYCEALEE J. WOOD, ex officio Member, All in Their Official Capacities, Respondents (Woodland Community Consolidated School District 50, Oak Grove School District 68, Warren Township High School District 121, and Libertyville Community High School District 128, Respondents-Appellants)

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Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 13-MR-237. Honorable Diane E. Winter, Judge, Presiding.

SYLLABUS

In proceedings on a petition to detach petitioners' subdivision from one set of school districts and annex it to another set of districts, the appellate court upheld the trial court's reversal of the regional board of school trustees' denial of the petition, since travel times and distances to schools would be improved by granting the petition, the regional board erred in weighing the " community of interest" and " whole child" factors and finding that the students represented by petitioners did not have a strong community of interest with schools they sought to join, and the regional board also erred in failing to consider evidence of the potential for increases in the property values for the petitioning subdivision if the petition was granted; furthermore, the evidence of petitioners' preferences was not controverted, and there was evidence showing that petitioners' students would receive some educational benefit if the petition was granted.

A. Lynn Himes and Alan M. Mullins, both of Scariano, Himes & Petrarca, Chtrd., of Chicago, for appellants.

James P. Bartley and Jacob H. Karaca, both of Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins, Ltd., of Chicago, for appellees.

JUSTICE JORGENSEN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices McLaren and Spence concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

JORGENSEN, JUSTICE.

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[¶1] Petitioners, Ayaz Merchant, Charles T. Taylor, Cheryl D. Taylor, Elsie I. Dietz, Dorothy B. Taylor, Thomas F. Earth, Maria G. Earth, Anand K. Patel, Pinal Patel, and Dawn Dahl, as a " Committee of 10" pursuant to section 7-6(c) of the Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/7-6(c) (West 2012)), sought to detach their territory, commonly known as the Lancaster subdivision, from the boundaries of respondents Woodland Community Consolidated School District 50 (Woodland) and Warren Township High School District 121 (Warren) and annex it into the boundaries of respondents Oak Grove School District 68 (Oak Grove) and Libertyville Community High School District 128 (Libertyville). Pursuant to section 7-1 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/7-1 (West 2012)), petitioners filed a petition with respondent the Regional Board of School Trustees of Lake County (Regional Board or Board). The Regional Board conducted a hearing over five evenings.

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Woodland, Warren, Oak Grove, and Libertyville (school districts or districts) opposed the petition. The Regional Board denied the petition.

[¶2] On administrative review, the trial court reversed the Regional Board's decision. The school districts appeal, arguing that the Regional Board correctly denied the petition. We affirm the trial court's order reversing the Regional Board's decision.

[¶3] I. BACKGROUND

[¶4] The Lancaster subdivision is located in the southeastern part of Warren Township and, although it has a Libertyville mailing address, is part of the City of Waukegan. Lancaster, which is triangular, is bounded on the east by the Tri-State Tollway (I-94) and on the west by O'Plaine Road. The southern boundary of the territory is the Warren Township boundary line, and on the other side of that line is the Regency Woods subdivision, which is located within the boundaries of Oak Grove and Libertyville.

[¶5] Lancaster contains approximately 80 single-family homes. There are 95 children in the subdivision, with 24 attending kindergarten through eighth grade at the Woodland schools and 15 attending Warren Township High School (WHS).

[¶6] Woodland has an enrollment of 6,713 students in four schools: primary (pre-kindergarten and kindergarten), elementary (grades one through three), intermediate (grades four and five), and middle (grades six through eight). Oak Grove has one school building (Oak Grove school), serving students in kindergarten through grade eight. Its student enrollment has declined from 1,081 in 2005 to 838 in 2012. WHS is a two-campus high school (O'Plaine for freshmen and sophomores and Almond for the older students) and has about 4,500 students. Libertyville High School's (LHS's) enrollment at its single campus is about 2,000 students.

[¶7] On June 25, 2012, petitioners filed their petition seeking detachment from Woodland and Warren and annexation to Oak Grove and Libertyville, all in Lake County. 105 ILCS 5/7-1 (West 2012) (providing for alteration of school district boundaries lying entirely within one educational service region). The petition was signed by at least two-thirds of Lancaster's registered voters, and the signers were represented by petitioners.

[¶8] The hearing on the petition was conducted before the Regional Board on October 1 and 30, November 13 and 26, and December 4, 2012. At the hearing, petitioners presented evidence on five issues: (1) whether there would be an educational advantage to the Lancaster students if they went to Oak Grove school and LHS; (2) travel distances and times from Lancaster to the desired schools; (3) whether Lancaster has a community of interest with the City of Libertyville; (4) the potential increase in Lancaster home values if the petition were granted; and (5) petitioners' school preferences. The school districts presented evidence on the first three issues and stipulated that there would be no financial detriment to any of the school districts if the petition were granted.

[¶9] A. Educational Advantage

[¶10] Petitioners presented Timothy F. Brown's testimony and report. Brown is chair of the department of education at Argosy University's Chicago campus and has a doctorate in secondary education and curriculum from Indiana University. He opined that the Lancaster students would receive a better education at Oak Grove school and LHS than at the Woodland schools and WHS. He based his opinion on " data the literature shows as being indicative

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of school quality: student mathematics achievement scores, student cohort size and student engagement." Brown testified that studies have concluded that mathematics achievement is influenced more by teacher instruction than is achievement in other academic areas; in other words, mathematics achievement is not as influenced by socioeconomic conditions. He compared the percentages of students who over a four-year period met or exceeded state standards for mathematics at the Woodland schools and Oak Grove school, and he testified that Oak Grove's percentages were higher.

[¶11] Brown further stated that studies of the connection of class and school size to student achievement have been inconclusive but that there is growing evidence that student cohort size ( i.e., the number of students in the same grade housed in the same school) impacts student achievement. In elementary school, he noted, the primary relationship is between the teacher and the student and, thus, class size is very important. Cohort size becomes more important as students approach middle school, because the curriculum is departmentalized and students move about their schools in the course of the day. The larger the cohort, the less opportunity for students to engage with adults. Brown concluded that the cohorts for the Woodland schools and WHS were significantly larger than those for Oak Grove school and LHS.

[¶12] Regarding student engagement ( i.e., student involvement with adults and other students in the school, including academic, cocurricular, and extra classroom engagement), Brown opined that studies reflected that this factor predicts school safety, student achievement, and, possibly, postsecondary school success. He explained that there are three elements of student engagement: teacher experience (faculty stability and educational level and adult-to-child ratio), delinquent behavior, and parental involvement.

[¶13] He testified that, at Oak Grove school and LHS, teachers have more teaching experience and a higher percentage of master's degrees and there are fewer students per adult than at Woodland and WHS. WHS has a higher chronic truancy rate ( i.e., the percentage of the student body that has been absent from school for 10% or more of the time) than LHS, as reflected in the schools' state report cards. This is an indicator of lack of engagement. The four-year (2008 through 2011) average chronic truancy rate was 10.9% for WHS and 0.4% for LHS; the state average was 3.3%.

[¶14] He opined that, based on the three indicators of school quality (math scores, cohort size, and student engagement), there would be " higher expectations for quality" at Oak Grove and LHS than at the Woodland schools and WHS. However, Brown also testified that petitioners were highly committed, which trumped all other indicators of student success. He noted that petitioners initiated the present (and one previous) detachment petition, and, in his report, he stated that petitioners " feel passionately" about their children's education and that parents " who choose the school for their children have an investment that is powerful."

[¶15] Brown further testified that most teachers earn their master's degrees by going to school at night during the school year and that this " creates an environment where they can be bifurcated in their responsibilities." Thus, teachers who have already earned their master's degrees can give more attention to the school and their students.

[¶16] On cross-examination, Brown explained that, in forming his opinions, he did not focus on " Adequate Yearly Progress"

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(AYP)[1] ratings as an indicator of school success, because one subgroup's failure to meet AYP criteria can cause an entire school not to meet them and " that may or may not be reflective of the whole school." Brown also denied that he based his conclusions on the differences in test scores between the subject schools; he explained that this was only one factor and that he focused on a pattern of differences in only math scores. He further explained that one cannot draw statistical comparisons, because the numbers of subjects in the relevant groups is different.

[¶17] Petitioners presented the four districts' 2008 to 2011 state report cards on criteria including student performance, pupil-to-teacher ratio, pupil-to-administrator ratio, teacher experience, and number of teachers with advanced degrees. Ayaz Merchant prepared petitioners' exhibit Nos. 14 and 15, which summarized this data. He testified that Oak Grove school performed better than the Woodland schools on all of the criteria and that LHS performed better than WHS on all of the criteria. Arand Patel conducted an Internet search of the schools' ratings (presented in petitioners' exhibit No. 16) from sources such as greatschools.org, chicagomag.com, usnews.com, thedailybeast.com, schooldigger.com, suntimes.com, and chicagotribune.com. He testified that overall Oak Grove school is ranked higher than the Woodland schools and that LHS is ranked higher than WHS.

[¶18] The school districts' evidence on educational advantage was as follows. Mary Perry-Bates, the interim superintendent for WHS, testified that she took courses on academic research and conducted such research during her master's and doctoral studies. She reviewed Brown's report and the abstracts of the studies cited therein. Perry-Bates opined that a significant number of Brown's opinions were unsupported or contradicted by the research he cited. Specifically, she challenged his statement that mathematics achievement is influenced more by teacher instruction than is achievement in other subjects. According to Perry-Bates, Brown cited only one study, which actually examined how socioeconomic status is associated with continued learning over the summer. She also pointed to Brown's statement that student engagement is an indicator of reduced student victimization, increased student achievement, and post-secondary student success. Perry-Bates opined that Brown's cited studies did not draw this conclusion. She stated in her report that the authors of one study noted that mathematics achievement and school and cohort size are related to student engagement, not student performance, as Brown had represented. She also noted that several of his statements were unsubstantiated personal opinions, including that larger cohorts increase the chances of student anonymity and lack of school involvement and that student anonymity and lack of involvement are indicators of poor student engagement. Perry-Bates did not offer her own opinions on the issues Brown presented, and petitioners were not permitted to question her on this topic.

[¶19] Prentiss Lea, superintendent of Libertyville, testified that he disagreed with petitioners' assertion that the Lancaster children would receive a better education

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at LHS than they would at WHS; in his view, the education provided at WHS was " similarly excellent." WHS and LHS, Lea stated, have very similar program offerings. He noted that 9 of the 15 Lancaster students at WHS are in advanced placement (AP) courses and that WHS has a pass rate (i.e., scoring a 3, 4, or 5 on a national test) of 89% versus 91% at LHS. The 89% pass rate places WHS in the top 10% of Illinois schools.

[¶20] Lea testified that the schools' state report cards cannot be read to reflect that LHS students receive a better education than WHS students. In his view, the differences in the teacher-to-student ratios are not significant, there is no research that defines how such differences affect education quality, and the average scores on all criteria show that the differences have no effect. Lea noted that, in the high school report card data summarized in petitioners' exhibit No. 15, demographic data, a critical factor, was missing from the summary. He explained that 16% of the students at WHS are of low socioeconomic status (SES) and that 2% have limited English-language proficiency. Historically, students of low SES and with limited English proficiency do not perform as well on standardized tests as do other students. At LHS, only 5% of students are of low SES, and only 0.4% have limited English proficiency. Lea noted that it is very difficult to compare the schools, given the demographic differences.

[¶21] Lea testified that, to determine whether WHS's teachers were doing as good a job as LHS's teachers, one should look at how individual students' needs are being met. This data is not reflected, Lea stated, in petitioners' exhibit. Lea pointed to the state report cards' data in mathematics and reading. He agreed that one also could look at the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) test results. Petitioners' exhibit No. 13 reflected that the 2010-11 PSAE reading score for WHS was 160, whereas for LHS it was 167. The mathematics score for WHS was 162, whereas LHS had a score of 169. WHS's science score was 163 and LHS's score was 169. Lea opined that the test results reflect that there is not a lot of difference between the schools.

[¶22] Lea also testified to the PSAE scores showing the percentages of students meeting or exceeding standards. For the 2009-10 school year, in reading, WHS scored 64.1% and LHS scored 81.2%; in mathematics, WHS scored 63.9% and LHS scored 83%; and in science, WHS scored 65.3% and LHS scored 83.1%. For the 2010-11 school year, the reading score for WHS was 65.9% and for LHS it was 79.5%; in mathematics, WHS scored 68.2% and LHS scored 80.9%; and in science, WHS scored 65.2% and LHS scored 81.3%.

[¶23] Lea further testified that, since 2003 and until two or three years ago, all Libertyville schools met AYP criteria. (The standards have gone up every year.) WHS has never met them. As to Internet rankings, Lea does not find them reliable, because the qualifications of the rankers are unknown, the criteria are unspecified, and it is unclear if the criteria are valid. He also noted that no one from the websites made any official visits to the district or contacted him or other Libertyville school personnel to obtain information about the district.

[¶24] As to pupil-to-teacher ratios, Lea noted that the data (in petitioners' exhibit No. 15) reflected that, for 2008 through 2011, the average ratio was 19.83 to 1 for WHS and 16.88 to 1 for LHS. Lea opined that the three-student difference was not significant at the high school level. As to teacher experience, the data showed that teachers had an average of 10.65 years at

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WHS and 12.95 at LHS. Again, Lea opined that this did not imply that LHS students receive a better education than WHS students. Teachers with either level of experience have gone through the evaluation and tenure process, so the difference should not affect the quality of teaching. As to the fact that more teachers at LHS have master's degrees, Lea testified that the degree does not alone make a better teacher. Also, the data does not reflect the subject areas ( e.g., administration or mathematics) in which the master's degrees were earned. Similarly, he opined that higher teacher salaries do not reflect that students receive a better education. " The bottom line with teachers is the quality of the teacher you have, the commitment to their students, and the work that they do to help their students grow and increase their achievement."

[¶25] The U.S. News & World Report magazine ranks LHS as the seventeenth best high school in the State. Lea stated that, although the ranking is good and LHS is ranked higher than WHS, he does not believe that the Lancaster students would get a better education at LHS. The quality of the education a student receives depends on that student and what the school does to meet that student's needs. When asked " So other than that, it doesn't matter what school you go to?" Lea responded, " I would say correct."

[¶26] Mark Clement, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Oak Grove, agreed with Lea that the school report cards for Woodland and Oak Grove cannot be compared to assess which schools are better, because the schools and the school districts have different populations. Clement testified that about 29% of Woodland's students are of low SES whereas about 0.1% of Oak Grove's students are. He agreed with Lea that low SES students historically do not perform as well on standardized exams as do other students. He also noted that 12.5% of Woodland's students have limited English proficiency compared to only 2.2% at Oak Grove.

[¶27] To address Brown's report, Clement helped prepare respondents' exhibit Nos. 3 and 4, which contain data from the Illinois Interactive Report Card. The exhibits compare data for Woodland and Oak Grove, including demographics and student performance. Exhibit No. 4 shows the 2007 to 2012 mathematics performance scores of students in grades three through eight at both districts, with the scores of low SES students excluded. (There are no low SES students in the Lancaster subdivision.) Clement testified that all of the scores are over 90 and are in similar ranges.[2] Clement opined that this data is a more " apples to apples" comparison than Brown's data, because it compares like populations within the districts. Clement concluded that the Lancaster students would receive a similar education in either Oak Grove or Woodland.

[¶28] Steve Thomas, director of teaching and learning at Woodland, testified that he disagreed with Brown's estimate that Woodland's cohort size for grades six through eight is about 780 students. He explained that Woodland uses a " house" system to reduce the cohort into smaller groups called houses. There are four houses for the first through fifth grades, with about 165 students in each house. There are three houses for the sixth through eighth grades, with about 210 to 320 students in each house. Each house has its own section of the school building,

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and students conduct their daily school activities with only their house members. He further testified that, although playing interscholastic athletics is more difficult at a larger school district such as Woodland, there is a larger array of other options, such as intramurals and clubs.

[¶29] Wileen Gehrig, assistant superintendent for instructional services at WHS, testified that the Lancaster students would not receive a better education at LHS than at WHS, because the schools' curricula and AP pass rates are very similar. Gehrig testified that the curricula at WHS and LHS are very similar because they are aligned with the College Readiness Standards and the Common Core Standards. Thus, the two schools teach the same content area skills to students.

[¶30] Gehrig further testified that 9 of the 15 Lancaster students at WHS take AP classes. Because WHS is larger than LHS, WHS offers more courses and more sections of the same courses, which make scheduling easier. The courses that WHS offers that LHS does not include: Accounting II, Acting II, World History, Human Geography, Website Development, Outdoor Education/Outdoor P.E., History of Rock and Roll, Biology II, Chemistry II, and Microeconomics. Gehrig explained that students enrolled in AP classes can earn college credit if they attain a sufficient score on a national exam. WHS's AP pass rate is 89%, and LHS's is 91%. Gehrig opined that these results are very similar.

[¶31] Al Fleming, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Libertyville, agreed with Gehrig that there are only very minor differences in the curricula at WHS and LHS, such as the electives offered and the number of sections offered. Fleming opined that the Lancaster students in AP classes at WHS would not receive a better education at LHS; they would receive the same education because the exam is a standardized national exam.

[¶32] As detailed below, the Regional Board found that there would be no discernible academic detriment or benefit to the Lancaster students if the petition were granted, and the trial court upheld this ...


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