Case: Grzegorz Gwozdz v. Bd. of Educ. of Park Ridge-Niles Sch. Dist. No. 64, 2021 IL APP (1st) 200518 (1st Dist. 2021).
Decision Date: Friday, March 5, 2021
The Illinois Appellate Court for the 1st District (Court) considered an appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County (Circuit Court) and found that a school district properly determined that a student was not a legal resident of the district.
During the 2017-2018 school year, M.G. was enrolled as a 7th grade student in the District and her address was listed at a large two-story building located a few blocks from the school. The building had commercial space on the first floor and residential apartments on the second floor. School officials questioned M.G.’s residency after viewing the lease provided as proof of residency, because it was a lease from the family to itself for 10 years with no change in rent. Using software designed to identify students with potential residency issues, the District identified that the family owned two properties: one within the District and one outside of it. Since the student’s residency was potentially suspect, the District authorized an Investigator to dig deeper. The Investigator conducted surveillance at the out-of-District residence for five days, taking notes and photos of the family (including the student) leaving and entering the residence throughout the day and remaining late into the evening when he left. Early the next morning, Investigator observed the family leave the out-of-District residence. Investigator spot checked the in-District residence but didn’t see any of the family’s vehicles there. Later, Investigator saw the student being dropped off at a market near the school but not at the school itself. Investigator speculated this was done to avoid suspicion because a student who actually lived a few blocks from school wouldn’t need to be dropped off. After reviewing Investigator’s report, the District issued a letter to the family stating M.G. was not a resident and requesting that the family meet with the Superintendent. The letter also informed the family that if, after the meeting, they disagreed with the District’s determination then they could request a residency hearing before the Board. The family met with the District, and then the District convened a residency hearing a few weeks later.
At the residency hearing, the family acknowledged they owned two buildings, one out-of-District and one in-District. They testified that they operated a flower business on the first floor of the in-District building and that an apartment on the second floor had been their primary residence since December 2012. The apartment has one bedroom and one bathroom, and the family testified M.G. and her high-school student brother shared the bedroom while parents slept in the family room. They further testified that M.G. was in charge of the family’s laundry but because the apartment had no laundry facilities, she used the laundry facility at the out-of-District house. The family admitted that even though the apartment was their primary residence since December 2012, M.G. had been enrolled in out-of-District schools through the end of the 2015-2016 school year. The District presented its case, including the software reports, Investigator’s report and photos, and registration documents and materials, and asserted that the combined factors led the District to believe M.G. lived outside the District. The hearing officer found the family made a “thin” prima facie case of residence in the District, which then shifted the burden to the District to disprove residency. The District met this burden because their evidence was “both persuasive and voluminous.” The hearing officer felt the family was not credible and, though the District’s evidence wasn’t “wholly conclusive,” it overwhelmingly suggested the family’s primary base of operations to be out-of-District. The hearing officer ordered the District to charge M.G. tuition for the 2017-2018 school year. The Board reviewed the hearing officer’s findings, considered written objections submitted by the family, and then adopted and incorporated the hearing officer’s findings and written decision that M.G. was not a resident. The family appealed to the Regional Superintendent, who upheld the Board’s decision.
The family then filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County. Following a hearing, the Circuit Court affirmed the Regional Superintendent’s decision upholding the Board’s decision. Next, the family appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court.
Because this case involved a mixed question of law and fact, the Court reviewed it to determine if the below decisions were “clearly erroneous,” meaning it asked: are we left with the firm conviction that a mistake has been committed? After a thorough review of Illinois School Code residency provisions and cases, the Court held that the hearing officer’s decision was not clearly erroneous. The family urged the Court to weigh the evidence differently, but the Court emphasized that “it is the responsibility of the Board, not the courts, to weigh the evidence and resolve any conflicts in the evidence.” The Court reasoned that because this was an administrative review case, it was required “to affirm the Board’s determination if there is any component evidence in the record to support it.” The Court held that the District’s process was proper and affirmed its decision that M.G. was not a resident.