Suburban districts applaud appellate decision on charter school funds

Fremont Township and Gurnee elementary school districts are hailing an appellate court opinion on how student education expenses are funded at the state-approved Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake.

The decision filed last Friday by the First District Appellate Court upheld a Cook County circuit court ruling in favor of Fremont Elementary District 79 and Woodland Elementary District 50.

The districts in May 2015 sued the Illinois State Board of Education regarding a change in the formula for calculating funding for students who lived in those districts but attend Prairie Crossing.

That action, taken without consulting either district, increased the amounts taken each year from Woodland and Fremont to pay for students in the districts who attended Prairie Crossing, the suit contended.

"Specifically, ISBE's decision would have resulted in Woodland losing approximately $165,000 more in annual funding to Prairie Crossing, while Fremont would have lost about $25,000 more each year," according to a joint statement issued Tuesday in response to the appellate court finding.

"Woodland and Fremont believed ISBE's decision was not in accordance with the Illinois School Code's charter funding provisions and sued to prevent the enforcement of ISBE's unilateral change," the statement read.

The state board is reviewing the decision and its impact and consulting with its attorneys regarding next steps in the litigation, according to Jackie Matthews, ISBE spokeswoman.

From Prairie Crossing's inception in 1999 until the 2015-16 school year, the state board included students attending Prairie Crossing in the enrollment areas of either Woodland or Fremont in calculating money to be deducted that otherwise was due those districts.

The formula change resulted in more money being withheld and paid to Prairie Crossing than in previous years. The appellate court affirmed the students should be counted as attending Fremont or Woodland.

Fremont Superintendent William Robertson said his district would be seeking reimbursement and a spokeswoman said Woodland likely would do the same.

Because it received the funds, Prairie Crossing as a formality was listed as a secondary defendant but was not accused of wrongdoing.

Geoff Deigan, executive director, said good arguments on both sides remain and the issue may not be over. The case reflects the need for funding reform of state-authorized charter schools, he added.

Deigan said he hoped all parties could work with state legislators to create a model that doesn't "overly impact any of our schools' resources and ensures there is equitable and fair funding" for students regardless where they choose to attend.

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