Woodland District 50 must decide on fighting charter school

 
 
Posted1/9/2016 7:30 AM
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  • Chris Schrantz

    Chris Schrantz

Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee soon must decide whether to continue a court fight challenging the continued operation of Prairie Crossing Charter School.

District 50 went to Cook County circuit court in 2014 in an effort to overturn a state commission's decision granting another five-year charter to the Grayslake choice school, allowing it to remain open through 2018-19. Prairie Crossing is within the boundaries of Woodland and Fremont Elementary District 79 in the Mundelein area.

Although District 50 prevailed when a Cook County judge issued a ruling that would have forced Prairie Crossing to close, that decision was overturned by an Illinois appellate court last week.

The district has two weeks to request a rehearing before the appellate court, or about four weeks to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to take on the case.

District 50 board President Chris Schrantz said in a statement that elected officials will discuss the appellate ruling and decide whether to pursue litigation. The board has scheduled a closed session for Wednesday.

"The Woodland Board of Education does not oppose the existence of charter schools," Schrantz said. "We do, however, oppose the existence of a school that does not uphold the Illinois Charter Schools Law, which requires that charter schools place a special emphasis on increasing learning opportunities for at-risk students. The appellate court's decision did not address whether the charter school was or was not upholding that duty."

Prairie Crossing Executive Director Geoff Deigan said he hopes District 50 ends the litigation so his school can continue at least until 2018-19.

District 50 has been at odds with Prairie Crossing since it opened about 16 years ago because Illinois law requires the district to send state aid money to the charter school to cover children whose parents shift them there from the larger district.

District 50 alleged in the May 2014 lawsuit that Prairie Crossing should not have been allowed to stay open because it violated its last five-year charter approval in 2009 by not increasing student diversity as directed. A month before the suit, Illinois State Charter School Commission members voted 5-4 to renew Prairie Crossing through 2018-19.

In March 2015, Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Allen sided with District 50, ruling the state agency erred in its decision. That ruling was overturned last week by First District Appellate Court justices Nathaniel Howse Jr., Cynthia Cobbs and David Ellis.

District 50 did not have the right to seek a reversal of the state charter school commission's decision because the district was not part of the Prairie Crossing renewal hearing, the justices wrote. They also wrote Woodland's decision to sue over the commission's decision was not allowed under the state's charter schools law.

However, the justices acknowledged why the circuit court ruled in Woodland's favor in the case.

"The trial court's obvious concern that a local school district is left without an opportunity to directly challenge the continued renewal of a charter school it once rejected is well founded," the justices wrote.

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 year lived within Woodland's boundaries and 16 percent in Fremont.

Woodland generally has been required to send about $3 million in state aid annually to Prairie Crossing to support children from the district. Officials in the 6,200-student Woodland district contend the $450,000 or so in general state aid that remains for their district is inadequate.

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