President Obama Signs Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) – Changes to Public Education Forthcoming

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) into law. This Act will bring significant changes to public education, most notably, giving the states greater control over student achievement measures, particularly with regard to the lowest performing school. Additionally, it will afford school districts greater discretion in evaluating teachers and strategizing for their retention. In effect, ESSA will displace most measures put into place through No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”).

While some are celebrating (President Obama even noting that the bipartisan bill-signing was a “Christmas miracle”), others have expressed doubt that the effects of these reform efforts will be felt at the school-based level. While the effects of this act is yet to be seen, some of the most important changes brought forth by ESSA are outlined below:

  • Changes to testing and accountability requirements – Continues certain annual testing requirements (annual math and reading testing 3rd-8th grade, once at high school level) but encourages assessment using additional, broader measures; allows states to audit time spent on testing and create “targets” using federal funds; removes adequate yearly progress (“AYP”) requirements and replaces with state-created goals with interim reviews
  • Shifts greater authority to the states with regard to school evaluations and reform measures – (i.e. states can create their own accountability systems utilizing a range of statutory factors, considering factors beyond test scores; states can assign weight to factors, with some restrictions)
  • Removes sanctions and interventions prescribed by NCLB ­– States to identify school districts needing “comprehensive support and improvement” and implement a collaborative school improvement plan, engaging both the local educational agency and community stakeholders
  • Addresses early childhood education – Allocation of federal grant money to preschools with low-income populations through a Preschool Development Grant of up to $250 million each year.
  • Teacher Training and Development – Removes “highly qualified teacher” requirement imposed by NCLB and does not provide mandated teacher evaluation requirements; allows states and districts to utilize Title II funds for a range of teacher performance and development-related activities.

Over the course of the next year, we will continue to provide further information pertaining to the transition time table and implications for local school districts.

By: Laura M. Julien

If you have any questions concerning ESSA, or other school law issues, please contact Peter K. Wilson, Bernard K. Weiler, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: pkw@mickeywilson.com; bkw@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com.

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The “Berlin Wall of Steel:” What School Districts and Municipalities Can Learn From the Crystal Lake South High School Bleacher Case

Crystal Lake South High School made headlines this fall when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the school was required to follow the city zoning and storm water ordinances, despite the fact that it was a public school operating under the Illinois School Code. Significantly, this will likely result in the recently constructed 1.2 million dollar bleachers being torn down, pursuant to the Circuit Court’s 2014 order, which had been stayed pending appeal.

The lawsuit was initiated when residents, who owned properties abutting the football field (and the newly constructed bleachers), complained that the bleacher expansion project was unlawful and negatively impacted their property values (dubbing it the “Berlin Wall of Steel”). When the City of Crystal Lake learned of the project, it informed the school board that it must cease all construction activities until all of the city’s zoning, storm water, and permitting requirements were met. The school district ignored this directive, maintaining that as a school district engaging in construction activities on school property, it was exempt from municipal zoning provisions. As part of its response, the school district filed a third-party complaint against the City of Crystal Lake, seeking declaratory judgment on the issue of whether, as a public school district, it was subject to the city’s zoning and storm water regulations.

The Illinois Supreme Court found in favor of the city, holding that the school district was subject to both the city’s zoning and storm water ordinances. In its analysis, it disagreed with the school district’s characterization of Section 10-22.13a of the Illinois School Code (provision authorizing a school district to seek zoning changes). While the district contended that this section of the statute was permissive, rather than mandatory, the Court found that the district’s interpretation was unreasonable because it was not supported by the plain language of the statute. In furtherance of its analysis, the Court cited Wilmette Park District v. Village of Wilmette, 112 Ill. 2d 6 (1986) as analogous, noting “absent an explicit statutory grant of immunity, the mere fact that…a local unit of government, has a statutory duty…cannot be extended to support the inference that it can exercise its authority without regard to the zoning ordinance of its host municipality.”

The Court also rejected the school district’s contention that the Illinois School Code limited review of school construction plans to the provisions set forth in the “Health/Life Safety Code for Public Schools.” Again, citing the plain language of the statute, the Court found that while the Health/Life Safety Code established minimum construction standards for facilities, it did not conflict with the type of issues addressed in zoning, and therefore did not preempt the city’s zoning and storm water ordinances.

While the City of Crystal Lake is a home-rule municipality, the court’s analysis of the issue and its findings regarding the municipal authority to regulate zoning matters does not cite any authority that would exclude non-home rule municipalities from its holding.

By: Laura M. Julien

For more information on public land use and zoning matters, please contact Steven A. Andersson, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: saa@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com.

When Technology Outpaces the Law – The Illinois Freedom of Information Act and Personal Electronic Devices

Openness and transparency in government is critical to garnering the confidence and support of the general public. From the nation’s highest offices in the White House to the day-to-day operations in a local city hall, the operations of government are continuously under scrutiny.

Enacted on July 1, 1984, the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), like the federal Freedom of Information Act, was adopted on the premise that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees…” and to promote “transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government.”

However, since its inception, technological advances have moved faster than the law has been able to keep up (the law itself acknowledges that “technology may advance at a rate that outpaces its ability to address those advances legislatively”). In recent years, devices such as smart phones have not only made information readily available, but also increased the number of ways in which parties can electronically communicate with one another (i.e. text messaging, e-mailing, and video chatting). However, the law at present only generally references “electronic communications” and makes no distinction between the various methods that one may utilize. Moreover, many entities have implemented “bring your own device” policies, requiring employees to conduct work-related business on their personal devices. As a consequence, determining whether information belongs to the public or private domain has become increasingly more difficult.

This is illustrated by a recent controversy in Chicago, which raises the question whether e-mails, pertaining to public matters but sent from private accounts or personal devices, are “public records” under FOIA. On September 24, 2015, the Chicago Tribune sued the City of Chicago Office of the Mayor and the Mayor for injunctive and declaratory relief for, amongst other things, production of “improperly held records” from “private” accounts. The Chicago Tribune asserted that such information, insofar as it pertains to public business, remains subject to FOIA. The Office of the Mayor disagrees, asserting the fact that such information was not in possession or under the control of the public body.

A similar issue was addressed in City of Champaign v. Madigan, 992 N.E.2d 629 (2013), a case in which members of the city council were found to be sending text messages to one another on their personal electronic devices during a city council meeting. Despite the private nature of the device, the crux of the court’s assessment came down to examining what constitutes the “public body.” In that case, the text messages were found to be “public record” by virtue of the fact that they were sent at a time while the public body was convened. The court, however, acknowledged “notably, section 2(a) [of FOIA] does not include the individual members of those bodies in the definition of ‘public body.’” Citing Quinn v. Stone, 570 N.E.3d 676, 677 (1991), the court further emphasized that “an individual city council member, alone, cannot conduct the business of a public body… [i]nstead, a quorum of city council members is necessary to make a binding decision.”

However, even in the event that the court does take on a FOIA question, the decisions are often narrow in scope. While basic principles can be imputed, public entities have been placed in the precarious position of having to serve as both the gatekeeper and the arbiter of such requests, careful to strike the correct balance between a host of competing interests (an employee’s right to privacy in their personal information with the public’s right to access public information), while simultaneously applying a law that admittedly can’t provide clear guidance to technological advances.

There are steps that public employers can take to help mitigate some of these issues. First and foremost, it is imperative that all public employees understand FOIA and its various implications. Second, public employers should make an ongoing effort to stay abreast of technological advances, create strong internal policies regarding the use of technology, and conduct regular training sessions regarding the same. These policies should encourage means that help segregate information in the public domain from that of the employee as a private individual. Finally, public employers should not hesitate to contact legal counsel if they have any questions, as handling these matters correctly from the beginning can help avoid potential problems down the line.

By: Laura M. Julien

For more information on the Freedom of Information Act, and how it may affect you as an employer or employee, or any other employment law issues, please contact Peter K. Wilson, Bernard K. Weiler, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: pkw@mickeywilson.com; bkw@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com.

School’s Out for the Summer: What Employers Should Know About Student Interns and the Fair Labor Standards Act

As summer vacation officially commences, many students opt to pursue internship opportunities. Unfortunately, many employers do not realize the potential implications of taking on student interns. Of particular note is the implications that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) may have on this long-standing practice.

Most employers are well versed on many provisions set forth in the FLSA (such as the 40-hour work week, national minimum wage, guaranteed overtime, child labor protections, etc.). However, its application becomes more nuanced in that many employers are unaware that many of its standards may also apply to individuals it may consider to be “volunteers” or “interns.”

The primary point of inquiry is determining whether a volunteer or intern can be considered an “employee.” Notably, the term “intern” does not appear in the FLSA. While it does establish that one may “volunteer” their services, certain criterion must be met so as to ensure that an employer is not circumventing this provisions under the guise of good-will.

Internships

The FLSA broadly defines employment as “to suffer or permit to work.” The U.S. Department of Labor has clearly articulated a six-factor test for employers to use in assessing whether a volunteer/intern would qualify as an “employee” for purposes of the Act.  While it has opined that this primarily applies to private-sector employers, it is important for public-sector employers to understand as well. That test is set forth below:

  • Whether the internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under the close supervision of existing staff;
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the inter; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for time spent in the internship

All of the above factors must be met to preclude the establishment of an employee relationship. In contrast, in the public sector, unpaid interns will generally be permissible so long as there is no expectation of compensation. To that end, public employers such as school districts and municipalities must exercise due caution to ensure that this is clearly communicated to any prospective interns.

Volunteer Activities

Another issue that may come up is whether an individual who is already employed may “volunteer” their time. In short, the employee may not volunteer their time for their employer if the work being performed is the same as that which they would ordinarily be providing. They may, however, volunteer for their current employer to do different type of work, or volunteer for a different public body doing the same type of work.

The Department of Labor has defined “volunteer” in the following manner:

  • An individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons;
  • without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered, is considered to be a volunteer during such hours.
  • Individuals shall be considered volunteers only where their services are offered freely and without pressure or coercion, direct or implied, from an employer. “Congress did not intend to discourage or impede volunteer activities undertaken for civic, charitable, or humanitarian purposes, but expressed its wish to prevent any manipulation or abuse of minimum wage or overtime requirements through coercion or undue pressure upon individuals to “volunteer” their services.”
  • An individual shall not be considered a volunteer if the individual is otherwise employed by the same public agency to perform the same type of services as those for which the individual proposes to volunteer.

Volunteers must be addressed slightly differently than internships. While the primary purpose of an internship is educational in nature, volunteer opportunities (or fundraising activities) may also invoke the FLSA. In some instances, a non-for-profit or public entity may work closely with a for-profit entity. By way of example, if an individual was volunteering in the same capacity and performing the same duties as a regular employee of the for-profit organization, it is likely that the FLSA would apply.

By: Laura M. Julien

For more information on the Fair Labor Standards Act, and how it may affect you as an employer or employee, or any other employment law issues, please contact Peter K. Wilson, Bernard K. Weiler, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: pkw@mickeywilson.combkw@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com