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Recent Illinois Appellate Decision Reminds Schools of Standards for Residency Decisions

Education K-12 Education

Although school districts evaluate residency claims on an almost daily basis, it is rare for an appellate court to weigh in on the standards that schools should use for that analysis. In a recent decision, Gwozdz v. Board of Education of Park Ridge-Niles School District No. 64, the Illinois appellate court reviewed a residency decision involving a middle school student whose family owned both an in-district and out-of-district property. One interesting element of the case is the hearing officer’s analysis of the burden of proof. Although the School Code clearly indicates that the family has the burden to establish residency, the hearing officer shifted that burden to the school district once the family made a prima facie showing of residence in the district. This standard, if adopted in future hearings, could require more effort by a school district to prevail in a residency dispute. The appellate court did not comment on the appropriate burden of proof but applied the well-established standard for school residency matters, looking to both the family’s physical presence and their intent – intent to establish an ongoing base of operations for the family versus intent to access the programs of the school district. The case is a good reminder to schools of the application of the residency standards as well as the many intricacies of residency disputes.

In Gwozdz, a middle school student’s parents enrolled her in the school district for the 2017–2018 school year using an address only a few blocks from the school. The family unquestionably owned, through an LLC, the building, which housed the family’s business on the first level and several rental apartments above. The family provided what the district felt was an “odd” lease, in that it was from the family itself, had a 10-year lease period, and provided for no rent increases over time. After a database search identified an out-of-district home owned by the family, the district began an investigation. Surveillance showed the family coming and going from the out-of-district home on a regular basis, but not the in-district address. The student’s parents also dropped her off regularly at a convenience market near the school, which the investigator reported is a method sometimes used to avoid detection when a student who purportedly lives very close to a school is nonetheless dropped off by car.

A hearing was held to address the family’s residency. The family acknowledged that they owned the out-of-district home but claimed that they rented a one-bedroom apartment from their LLC at the in-district address. The family testified that the student and her brother shared the bedroom while the parents slept in the family room. Notably, there was no evidence of any rent checks being paid to the LLC and the family acknowledged that the student had attended a school serving the out-of-district home through the end of the 2015–2016 school year, despite claiming to have moved to the in-district address in December 2012. 

The family explained their frequent presence at the out-of-district home by the lack of laundry facilities in the in-district apartment; accordingly, the family was at the out-of-district home often to use the washer and dryer there. They presented photographs showing renovations on and materials stored in the out-of-district home, claiming that the home was uninhabitable. They initially averred that the student never slept at the out-of-district home. When confronted with surveillance evidence to the contrary, the family then claimed that the student only slept there on those specific nights.

The hearing officer found that the bills and mail provided by the family addressed to the in-district address were sufficient to make a “thin” prima facie case of residence in the district. The district thus had the burden to disprove residency, which the hearing officer determined it did. Based on the facts described above, the hearing officer found the family’s account of their actions illogical and, thus, incredible. In contrast, the district’s evidence “overwhelmingly” suggested that the family’s primary base of operations was the out-of-district home. Although the family may have moved fluidly between the homes, the hearing officer explained, “[r]esidence cannot be fluid or chosen.”

After the Board of Education adopted the hearing officer’s findings and determined the student was a nonresident, the family unsuccessfully appealed to the Regional Office of Education. A lawsuit seeking to review the Board’s decision followed. A trial court affirmed the non-residency determination, and the family appealed.

In deciding the appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court for the First District repeated the often-used standard for determining student residency. The “critical question,” it explained, is “intent,” and “a person’s acts are given more weight than his or her declarations.” In determining intent, a court will “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.” The purpose of establishing the residence “must not be for the sole intent of attending free school in the district,” the court said, pulling in a standard that, under the School Code, is applied in cases where a student is sent to live with a third party other than the student’s parent/guardian. The standard is also applicable in cases such as this one where the family obtains or uses an in-district property to gain admission to the school while maintaining their physical and intended residence outside the district.

Using those standards, the appellate court found the hearing officer and Board’s decisions were not clearly erroneous and upheld them. Addressing a claim by the parents that they only had a few days to address the “sudden” accusations against them, the court noted that the timeframes followed in the case complied with Section 10-20.12b of the School Code, which requires a notice letter at least 10 days prior to the hearing and that evidence be exchanged at least 3 calendar days before the hearing. The court deemed those timeframes sufficient.

The court’s decision is an important reminder of the types of evidence hearing officers and courts will look for when making and reviewing residency determinations as well as the nuances of analysis in residency cases. Careful investigation and coherent evidence to support the district’s non-residency determination are critical. In future cases, school leaders should also be prepared for parents to raise arguments about the burden of proof, and should consider whether arguments about the purpose of a family’s presence in the district can be raised. For assistance with preparing for your next residency hearing, contact the authors of this post or any other Franczek attorney.