Prairie Crossing funding attacked in lawsuit
Increased funding demanded by the state for student education expenses at Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake has led to a lawsuit filed by two large elementary districts.
Gurnee-based Woodland Elementary District 50 and Mundelein-area Fremont Elementary District 79 filed the lawsuit against the Illinois State Board of Education over a change in the formula that requires Woodland and Fremont to forward annual state aid to pay for students living within the districts' boundaries who attend Prairie Crossing.
The small choice school with an environmentally focused curriculum that determines enrollment by lottery, already is part of another lawsuit filed by Woodland that threatens the charter school's future.
Under the new state aid formula at the center of the latest dispute, Woodland would pay an extra $165,000 annually and Fremont $25,000 to Prairie Crossing, according to the lawsuit.
Attorney James Petrungaro filed the suit on behalf of Fremont and Woodland on May 15 in Cook County circuit court. A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 15, before Associate Judge Neil H. Cohen.
State board of education spokesman Matt Vanover issued a statement regarding the lawsuit.
"We believe we are calculating the districts' per capita tuition charge correctly and we hope the court agrees or provides guidance otherwise," Vanover said.
Although Prairie Crossing is named as a secondary defendant in the complaint, Petrungaro wrote in the document that no wrongdoing is alleged by Woodland or Fremont against the charter school. Prairie Crossing Executive Director Geoff Deigan said the school landed in the suit just as a formality.
"In short, (Prairie Crossing) is named in the lawsuit only because it is a recipient of the (state aid) and we expect to incur no legal costs in having to defend our school in the matter," Deigan said.
Woodland and Fremont contend in the suit the state should count Prairie Crossing children in daily average attendance for the districts when calculating per capita student tuition costs. The state switched to a formula that excludes the charter school students from Woodland's and Fremont's average daily attendance.
Fewer students in average daily attendance at Woodland and Fremont unfairly boosts the per capita tuition cost and, therefore, the state aid that Fremont and Woodland now must forward to pay for the charter school students, according to the lawsuit.
"A real controversy exists in this matter," wrote Petrungaro, who declined to elaborate beyond the suit.
Woodland and Fremont also object to the state citing the new funding formula in seeking a combined, retroactive $325,000 from the districts. Attached to the suit is a state board of education letter stating an error was made in not using the formula in 2013 and 2014.
Court documents show Woodland sent $2.8 million in state aid to cover 309 children at Prairie Crossing in the 2013-14 academic year. Fremont shipped $779,516 for 79 of the district's children who chose to attend Prairie Crossing.
In the case of Woodland, officials say about $451,000 in state cash typically has been left after the Prairie Crossing payments to supplement income derived from property taxes to educate about 6,400 students. Fremont has 2,200 pupils.
Separately, Deigan said Prairie Crossing lawyers will be prepared to argue two motions they filed related to a Cook County judge's decision that could lead to the charter school's closing.
On March 23, Circuit Judge Thomas Allen agreed with Woodland's position in a lawsuit and found the Illinois State Charter School Commission erred last year in granting permission for Prairie Crossing to operate through the 2018-19 academic season. As a state-created charter school, Prairie Crossing is required to get permission to continue operations every five years.
Deigan said oral arguments set for Thursday, June 11, will pertain to a motion to stay enforcement of the ruling and a motion for the judge to reconsider. Woodland attorneys have filed documents in response to the motions, setting the stage for the hearing.
Woodland claimed in the suit the state charter school commission should not have voted to allow Prairie Crossing to stay open because it did not boost student diversity as directed after receiving its last approval in 2009. Woodland sued the state agency and Prairie Crossing in May 2014.
Representatives from all sides involved in the suit say they expect the case to go before an Illinois appellate court.
Fremont and Woodland officials objected to creation of Prairie Crossing before it opened in 1999. Documents show 84 percent of Prairie Crossing's roughly 400 students in the 2014-15 academic season lived within Woodland's boundaries and 16 percent in Fremont.