In the closing days of its January term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide a question involving the potential collision of several different aspects of Illinois constitutional law: are school districts subject to local zoning? The case is Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155, a decision from the Second District.
Gurba began when the bleachers at the defendant school district’s high school football field failed a structural inspection. The school district decided to replace the bleachers entirely, moving the home bleachers to the side of the field adjacent to the plaintiff’s property in order to improve traffic flow. The problem was, if the local zoning ordinances were applicable to the defendant’s project, the new bleachers were too big, too high, and too close to the property line. The City issued a stop-work order against the School Board and the plaintiffs sued, seeking to privately enforce various zoning and stormwater ordinances. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the trial court found for the plaintiffs, determining that the school district was indeed subject to the local zoning ordinances.
On appeal, the defendant Board argued that the Illinois Constitution declares public education to be a matter of statewide concern, and that its power flowed from the legislature, with little room for municipalities to interfere – therefore, school boards were not subject to local zoning.
The Appellate Court reviewed in detail the home rule provisions and educational provisions of the state constitution, concluding that “in the case of a conflict between a home-rule unit and a school district, there is a slight bias toward the home-rule unit.” The home rule clauses were broad and liberal in scope, the Court noted, while the constitution “is careful to emphasize the limited authority of school districts.” Home-rule units’ powers are subject only to negative preemption by the legislature; school boards, on the other hand, have only the powers they’re affirmatively given by the legislature.
The Court conceded that education was a matter of statewide concern pursuant to the state constitution. But this wasn’t the same thing as saying that school boards were creatures of statewide import, the Court said; local school boards remained rooted in the local community. The notion that municipalities were powerless to interfere in school boards’ land use decisions didn’t follow from the general observation that public education was a statewide issue.
Turning to the relevant statutes, the Court emphasized the Zoning Change Provision of the School Code, 105 ILCS 5/10-22.13a. According to the provision, local school boards are empowered to “seek zoning changes, variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district.” This provision was entirely superfluous if school boards weren’t subject to local zoning regulations in the first place, the Court noted. Indeed, the Attorney General had recently relied on that canon of statutory construction to conclude that a local public school district was subject to municipal or county zoning ordinances, at least unless compliance interfered with the district’s ability to provide public education. The defendant argued that the Zoning Change Provision applied only to property not being used for public school purposes, but the Court pointed out that that wasn’t what the provision said – it applied to “property held or controlled by the school district.” The defendant pointed to a proposal currently pending in the legislature to amend the Zoning Change Provision to expressly require school districts to comply with local zoning ordinances. The Court criticized the school board for omitting language from the amendment stating that it was intended merely to be declarative of existing law, not to change the law.
The Appellate Court concluded by applying the three-step analysis found in City of Chicago v. StubHub, Inc. for determining when a home-rule unit may concurrently regulate areas of statewide concern. Each step in the analysis favored a finding that the municipality could enforce its zoning regulations, since the State had no traditional role in regulating local land use, and leaving such regulation in the hands of municipalities conflicted very little, if at all, with the Board’s ability to provide public education.
For all these reasons, the Court concluded that the zoning regulations were enforceable against the defendant Board and reversed the judgment, affirming the Circuit Court.
We expect Gurba to be decided in eight to twelve months.