Disparities are not illegal, report says

D86 attorneys call size and course gaps at Hinsdale Central, Hinsdale South appropriate

Enrollment unevenness and course differences between Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South high schools have been the subject of criticism from Hinsdale High School District 86 residents. According to the district’s legal counsel, however, those differences do not represent Constitutional violations.

At the District 86 Board meeting May 28, attorneys Stanley Eisenhammer and Pamela Simaga of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn LLP said their analysis of the issue found that the district not run afoul of the 14th Amendment, specially the Equal Protection Clause.

“Students at Hinsdale South High School are not denied equal educational opportunities under the law, and District 86 is compliant with school equity rules and the law,” Eisenhammer told board members.

He explained that they did not assess the quality of the district’s education plan but simply scrutinized its legality.

“Our job as lawyers is to ensure that you, as a school district, follow the Constitution and laws,” he said.

Eisenhammer laid out the case law prescribing that students receive equal opportunities for success.

“It doesn’t require all schools to provide the exact same classes and activities, as long as there are equal opportunities,” he said.

Simaga said the fact that while Hinsdale South has more students of color, discrimination was not a factor in that dynamic.

“There’s no evidence that the attendance boundaries were drawn to separate students by race,” she reported.

Other variations between the schools are deemed permissible as long as they are for rational reasons, using considerations such as geographic proximity, neighborhood boundaries and school capacity, Simaga said.

“Ultimately, any difference between the two schools is going to be subject to rational review,” she stated, adding that arguments could be made for the advantages of attending the smaller South versus the larger Central.

“Hinsdale South has smaller class sizes. The chances of making a cut sport or activity are statistically increased.”

Several residents, in submitted comments that were read at the meeting, aired grievances over disparities between the school communities, suggesting that more limited courses and activities at South are to blame, in part, for its lower state ranking and lower property values.

“When the District 86 school board stops interfering with the real estate market through inequitable treatment of its schools, you will see South seniors selling their empty-nest homes to eager buyers and then moving just like their Central counterparts do today,” resident Alan Hruby said.

“When will the board of ed take responsibility and bring equity to District 86?” posed resident Stacy Longfellow.

But Simaga said those claims of inequality don’t hold up.

“The differences behind Central and South are minimal,” she said, citing statistics in areas like teacher retention, rates of college coursework and post-secondary enrollment that are virtually the same. “The differences between South and Central don’t result in unequal opportunities based on state metrics.”

Superintendent Tammy Prentiss said South’s graduation rate is skewed because of the way the state accounts for Transition Center students. While South’s four-year rate is 87 percent, it rises to 97 percent — commensurate with Central — after students exit transition services.

“I do believe that is something that’s contributing on many fronts to the misnomer that there’s something different (between the schools),” Prentiss said of the state’s approach, which the district has been lobbying to change.

Simaga advised the board to continue monitoring the issue by, for example, regularly examining and comparing teachers’ years of experience or education levels at the schools.

Eisenhammer said district officials have latitude legally to charter the district’s path.

“You have a variety of choices to deal with the programs at the both of the schools, and those choices are up to you,” he said.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean