Woodland District 50 sues to close Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake

Gurnee-based Woodland School District 50 filed a lawsuit this week seeking the closure of Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake.

The lawsuit argues that Prairie Crossing has failed to educate at-risk students as required by the state. The litigation also claims that, by taking state funds, the charter school diverts money away from services for low-income and underrepresented students in District 50.

Prairie Crossing Executive Director Geoff Deigan said he has not yet seen the lawsuit. But the district's arguments, laid out in a news release Thursday, are the same as those made during unsuccessful past efforts to get the school's charter revoked, he said.

"They have tried to thwart the existence of our charter school since we started in 1999," Deigan said.

District 50 board President Carla Little said Prairie Crossing hasn't addressed the issues raised in Woodland's previous lawsuits.

"Ever since they've been in existence they've skirted the law with educating at-risk students," Little said. "That's why we have a problem with it."

The Illinois State Charter School Commission granted Prairie Crossing a five-year extension of their charter in 2019. Woodland 50 officials then filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education. In their complaint, Woodland officials noted that just 4% of Prairie Crossing students were from low-income families in the 2018-2019 school year, compared to 35% of Woodland 50 students.

Prairie Crossing also enrolled fewer Black students (4% versus Woodland's 8%) and Hispanic students (6% versus Woodland's 33%).

The complaint was rejected by the state board of education in June.

Deigan said Prairie Crossing's number of low-income students has grown, but it isn't fair to compare the demographics between the charter and District 50 schools. Public schools have to serve every child within the district, while charter schools only enroll children when they have an open seat.

"People have to make the choice to come here," Deigan said, noting there is a state-mandated lottery process to enroll. "We have over 150 families on our waitlist now and I have no idea who they are or where they come from or any of that."

Little said one reason low-income students don't sign up for Prairie Crossing is because the school does not offer transportation or free food programs.

"The school has been in existence since 1999 but they still haven't found a way to attract those students. You'd think they would have done better in over 20 years," she said.

Woodland officials also filed a lawsuit in 2014, shortly after Prairie Crossing's previous five-year charter extension. Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Allen sided with District 50 in March 2015, ruling the state charter commission erred. But his ruling was overturned by a state appeals court, a decision later upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Once the dust had settled, Deigan estimated Prairie Crossing had spent about $150,000 in legal fees and Woodland's estimated legal tab was $212,281.

Deigan said that with the latest litigation, Woodland officials are repurposing money that should be going into classrooms.

"Here we are again defending our right to exist," he said. "We are a high-performing school and we are going to continue to do that, be that regardless of who is trying to stand in our way."

Little said Prairie Crossing essentially operates as a private school with public dollars.

"They are taking money away from poor kids at Woodland to educate rich kids at Prairie Crossing," she said. "That is hard for us, we cannot allow it, we have to say something, we have to point out these inequities."

Prairie Crossing, which last year had an enrollment of 431 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is within the boundaries of both District 50 and Mundelein-based Fremont Elementary District 79.

Woodland School District 50 officials are once again taking legal action aimed at closing Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake. Daily Herald File photo, 2016
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