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updated: 5/21/2014 4:13 PM

Dist. 50: Legal tab worth fight against charter school

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  • Woodland Elementary District 50 Superintendent Joy Swoboda discusses a lawsuit challenging a state agency's decision allowing Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake to operate for another five years.

       Woodland Elementary District 50 Superintendent Joy Swoboda discusses a lawsuit challenging a state agency's decision allowing Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake to operate for another five years.
    Bob Susnjara | Staff Photographer

  • Mark Vondracek

      Mark Vondracek

 
 

Woodland Elementary District 50's board president says potential financial gain will outweigh legal bills from a lawsuit challenging a state agency's recent decision allowing Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake to stay open for another five years.

Gurnee-based District 50 contends in the suit filed this week in Cook County circuit court that Prairie Crossing should not have received state approval to remain open because it violated its last charter renewal in 2009 by failing to "bridge the demographic disparity." Prairie Crossing has about 2 percent low-income students.

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Also at issue in the complaint is how Prairie Crossing is funded. Named in the lawsuit are the Illinois State Charter School Commission, Prairie Crossing and the Illinois State Board of Education.

Woodland board President Mark Vondracek said too much of the district's general state aid is "siphoned off" to pay for its students attending Prairie Crossing, which provides an environmentally focused curriculum to 384 students.

Open since 1999 and authorized by the state board of education, Prairie Crossing is within the boundaries of Woodland and Fremont Elementary District 79 in the Mundelein area. Fremont and Woodland children may be sent to the small, public choice school that determines enrollment by lottery.

Woodland most recently shipped about $3 million in general state aid to support 321 district children attending Prairie Crossing. That left $451,000 in state cash to supplement income derived from property taxes to educate about 6,400 students -- a funding method long labeled as unfair by District 50 officials.

Vondracek said Woodland likely would have to send $15 million over the next five years to educate its students at Prairie Crossing. He said fees from the suit challenging the decision allowing Prairie Crossing to continue are tentatively projected at $50,000, so the potential financial gain is worth it.

"This was a difficult decision," Vondracek said in a prepared statement he read at a news conference Tuesday announcing the suit, "but after our previous protests against Prairie Crossing Charter School reauthorization were unsuccessful, litigation is our only recourse under Illinois charter school law."

While the charter school commission didn't address the lawsuit, it issued a statement Wednesday saying Prairie Crossing has served the community well academically and financially for 15 years. The commission also noted the scrutiny the charter school has received because it must seek a renewal to operate every five years.

"Over 15 years, Prairie Crossing's charter has now been renewed at the state level three times, twice by the state board of education and now by the state charter school commission," the statement says.

Prairie Crossing Executive Director Geoff Deigan could not be reached for comment.

Last month, the state charter school commission voted 5-4 in favor of renewing Prairie Crossing through the 2018-19 academic year with a cap of 432 pupils. With the renewal came a condition that the charter school create a plan on how it'll attempt to diversify the student body.

Charter school commission Executive Director Jeanne Nowaczewski said Wednesday that Prairie Crossing has a May 31 deadline to provide her with the plan to diversify by actively seeking low-income and at-risk students living within the Woodland and Fremont boundaries.

In the lawsuit, District 50 asks that the charter commission be ordered to rescind its decision letting Prairie Crossing stay open. The complaint also wants the state board of education directed to decertify the charter renewal agreement.

Contrary to what District 50 alleges in the suit, charter school commission officials wrote in a finding that Prairie Crossing has not violated any state mandates regarding pupil diversity. The agency also found Prairie Crossing doesn't cause financial harm to Woodland or Fremont.

Woodland Superintendent Joy Swoboda said the charter school's pupils would be accommodated if the lawsuit caused Prairie Crossing to close. District 50 officials said there would be a minimal effect on class sizes.

"If that were to happen, we would be fully prepared to welcome those children back into our Woodland community," Swoboda said. "We would make targeted efforts to ensure that we have the input from the family and the children about friends that they had and group them accordingly in a very similar way that we group our current students."

Twitter: @DHBobSusnjara

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