Superintedent Philip Lark file

Beecher City Unit 20 Superintedent Philip Lark listens to public comments during a special emergency meeting of the board of education in September.

EFFINGHAM — An Effingham County judge on Wednesday temporarily reversed the “probationary” status placed on the Beecher City and Cowden-Herrick school districts by the state because of their refusal to require masks.

Judge Jeffrey DeLong issued the emergency temporary restraining order that elevated the districts to “fully recognized” status.

The Beecher City and Cowden-Herrick school districts were downgraded from “fully recognized” to “on probation” by the Illinois State Board of Education and the State Superintendent of Education when their school boards failed to enact a mask requirement as required under an executive order issued by the governor.

As of Wednesday morning, Beecher City Unit 20 and Cowden-Herrick Unit 3A were among only four public school districts in the state to remain on probation over masks. The others are Hustonville Unit 1 in Crawford County and Nauvoo-Colusa Unit 325 in Hancock County.

The local lawsuit, filed by Thomas DeVore of Silver Lake Group in Greenville, sought the temporary restraining order against ISBE and Dr. Carmen I. Ayala, the State Superintendent of Education. ISBE and Ayala were represented by Tara Barnett from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

DeLong’s decision also prohibits the State Superintendent from altering the recognition status of the districts, except as authorized during the annual compliance provisions of the Administrative code.

DeVore argued ISBE and Ayala do not have the legal authority to lower the status of Cowden-Herrick and Beecher City school districts.

He also argued that ISBE does not have an appeals process in place for districts that have been placed on probation, noting the appeals process only applies when a district is “non-recognized” – the next step after probation.

DeVore said the letters notifying the districts of their probation came from Ayala, who DeVore argued only had the power to make recognition changes once a year. The lawyer also noted the letters did not come from the Illinois State Board of Education, which he said should have made the decision.

Barnett, the attorney general’s representative, argued that ISBE has the power to allow Ayala to decide on recognition.

Whether or not Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order had a bearing on the matter factored into the argument from each side.

“This lawsuit is not about the Governor’s executive order mandating masks,” DeVore told the judge.

But Barnett said the order was central to the probation question.

“An executive order is a law,” Barnett said.

A hearing on the preliminary injunction is set for Nov. 8 at 1 p.m.

Charles Mills can be reached at charles.mills@effinghamdailynews.com or by phone at 217-347-7151 ext. 126.

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Charles Mills is reporter and videographer for the Effingham Daily News. A 1983 graduate of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, he worked as senior video editor for a Nashville television station. He is a native of Vandalia.