The Illinois Appellate Court (Second District) recently held that several parents’ action challenging an Illinois school district’s reorganization of two elementary schools was barred by the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (“Tort Immunity Act”). The court’s ruling in Donovan v. Community Unit School District 303 reaffirms the purpose of the Tort Immunity Act to protect local public entities such as school districts from liability stemming from the operation of government and to prevent diversion of public funds to pay damages claims.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the school district reorganized Davis Elementary and Richmond Elementary so that Davis served students in kindergarten through second grade and Richmond served students in third grade through fifth grade rather than each school serving students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The school district reorganized the two schools due to Richmond’s failure to achieve adequate yearly progress (“AYP”) for the four consecutive years prior to the 2011-2012 school year (2007-2011). As required by Illinois law and in compliance with No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”), after Richmond failed to achieve AYP for the second consecutive year (2008-2009), the school district offered the parents of the school the choice to enroll their children in higher-performing schools within the district. As a result, by the 2010-2011 school year, over 100 Richmond students transferred to other schools in the district, and the enrollment at Davis increased by 19 students. Davis had achieved AYP every school year prior to the 2010-2011 school year.
When the school district reconfigured the two previously independent elementary schools into two interdependent schools in 2011, the parents of students at Richmond were no longer permitted to transfer their children to higher-performing schools because the option was no longer available. In October 2013, parents of students who originally attended Davis filed a complaint alleging that the school district violated NCLB and the Illinois School Code because the reorganization forced Davis students to attend Richmond, the lower-achieving school, without giving parents the choice to transfer their children to another school. The parents purported to bring their claims on behalf of a class of similarly situated parents and alleged damages including costs for parents who moved their children to private schools and who moved outside the school boundary to avoid sending their children to Richmond. The school district moved to dismiss the complaint arguing, in part, that the Tort Immunity Act afforded it immunity. Specifically, in light of the parents’ argument that their injuries were caused by the school district’s adoption of the reorganization plan and its failure to provide choice in contravention of NCLB and the Illinois School Code, the school district argued that Section 2-103 of the Tort Immunity Act applied: “A local public entity is not liable for an injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt an enactment or by failing to enforce any law.” 745 ILCS 10/2-103. The trial court granted the school district’s motion to dismiss, and the parents appealed.
On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the parents’ complaint. The Appellate Court rejected the parents’ argument that Section 2-103 of the Tort Immunity Act applies only to discretionary acts of school officials and that the school district’s reorganization plan was a ministerial and non-discretionary act. The Appellate Court found that the plain language of Section 2-103 of the Tort Immunity Act does not expressly limit immunity to discretionary acts and that the immunities provided by the Tort Immunity Act are absolute unless expressly limited by the legislature. As such, the Appellate Court found that the Tort Immunity Act immunized the school district’s reorganization decision whether or not it was discretionary.