Wednesday, July 8, 2015

District Awaits Ruling on Bleacher Case

The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments from parties in late May regarding a case that has pitted municipal zoning laws against school district property use. The decision, expected late this summer, could impact school districts throughout the state.

Neighbors of the Crystal Lake South High School football field began the legal process two years ago, arguing that CHSD 155 (located in the Kishwaukee Division) violated city zoning ordinances when constructing new bleachers. District 155 has in turn said they followed state law and the Illinois School Code throughout the building process of the football stands.

The Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), Illinois Association of School Business Officials (Illinois ASBO), and the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA) have joined District 155 filing an Amicus brief on behalf of the district. The brief states that “subjecting school district structures to municipal zoning regulations limits the districts’ ability to provide high-quality public education.”

The Amicus brief cited multiple examples of how municipal zoning regulations could frustrate a school district’s ability to achieve high quality education for students as required by the Illinois Constitution and General Assembly.

Other avenues have been pursued to resolve the issue out of court, including trying to accommodate neighbor concerns by moving restroom facilities and hiring a consultant to create a “natural buffer” between the homes and facility. The district also went before the zoning commission to seek an ordinance for the project. The zoning ordinance was denied by the Crystal Lake Planning and Zoning Commission and the additional accommodations were not enough to alleviate all neighbor concerns.

Meanwhile, legislation was introduced that would change the School Code. Senate Bill 36, filed this spring by Sen. Pam Althoff (R-McHenry), would require a school district and its school board to comply with any local government zoning ordinance or resolution that applies where part of the school district is located. The legislation unanimously passed the Senate but was held in the House pending the Supreme Court ruling. The Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance opposed the bill.

“First of all, no legislation should be considered on this issue until there is a court ruling. School districts now are under a state Health/Life Safety Code which is stringent and protects the well-being of the students,” said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director and head of IASB Government Relations. “Further, with the overlapping of municipal boundaries and school district boundaries around the state, local zoning ordinances for school districts would be complicated and restrictive.”

How the Supreme Court decides the case will have both short and long-term impacts for District 155 and other schools as they prepare building projects. Current law requires that construction of school facilities be approved by the Regional Superintendent of Education. Previously, no court has ruled that public school property is subject to local zoning ordinances. Deviating from the current approval process will entail major changes at a time when schools are faced with new mandates and requirements dictating how school facilities are to be built and used.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court rulings, “Everything built on school property will be subject to city zoning regulations,” stressed District 155 Board President Ted Wagner. “This will affect every school in Illinois, and potentially require zoning [retroactively] for projects that have already been completed. All projects would be subject to building permits, inspections, fees, and other associated costs.”

In the Crystal Lake case the cost of moving the bleachers carries a potential price tag of $4-5 million, while the initial construction price was just $1.1 million. 

“If we prevail, we would still like to help address the issue and work to accommodate the concerns of neighbors affected by the project,” Wagner reiterated.