Prairie Crossing Charter School’s future uncertain after charter pulled

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By Genevieve Bookwalter
Chicago Tribune contact the reporter
original article

The future of a Lake County charter school is uncertain after a judge this week ruled that a state commission was wrong in giving the school approval to operate for another five years.

The Illinois Charter School Commission’s decision to extend the charter for Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake was “clearly erroneous and is reversed,” Cook County Judge Thomas Allen wrote in his Monday ruling.

The school will not close immediately, officials said. Prairie Crossing is on spring break this week but will be open Monday and continue to hold classes until told differently.

Prairie Crossing was established in 1999 and has long been a source of controversy. The school’s creation was approved by the state over the opposition of its feeder districts, Woodland Community Consolidated District 50 in Gurnee and Fremont Elementary School District 79 in Mundelein.

Because of the way charter school funding is set up, Prairie Crossing siphoned off about $3.1 million of District 50’s $3.5 million in state funding, said James Petrugaro, attorney for District 50. In a district where 30 percent of students are from low-income families, that money is crucial to providing services for a population with a lower property tax base, the other primary source of school funding, Petrugaro said.

For their supporters to say that they received no property tax funding is thoroughly disingenuous. They have siphoned off funds from the local school districts since they began. This subdivision was established as an elitist dream. If they want to keep this school in their enclave they should…

Yet while nearly one-third of District 50’s Woodland’s students are from low-income families, only 1.8 percent of Prairie Crossing students fit that category, Petrugaro said. District 50 has argued that the charter school “has long significantly failed to enroll low-income and other at-risk students in its program,” according to a district news release.

Prairie Crossing supporters note that they don’t receive money from property taxes and depend entirely on state aid.

A charter school attorney, Respicio Vazquez, said Prairie Crossing will appeal Allen’s decision to the Illinois Appellate Court and, if necessary, to the Illinois Supreme Court. Vazquez also will ask the judge to delay enforcement of his order so Prairie Crossing can continue to hold classes while the case is on appeal.

“Basically, the school would be devastated if the judge decided to enforce his ruling now,” Vazquez said.

But Petrugaro said Woodland schools are ready to welcome about 300 of Prairie Crossing’s nearly 400 students — those who reside within the Woodland district — whenever a judge says the district should take them.

“The judge ruled in Woodland’s favor. Obviously, the district is very pleased,” Petrugaro said.

Allen ruled on one count in the lawsuit: that Woodland’s complaints should have been considered in the state commission’s decision to renew Prairie Crossing’s charter for another five years, as required by state law, both sides agreed.

Vazquez said the case is the first of its kind in Illinois, and he wouldn’t be shocked if it reached the state’s highest court.

Greg Richmond is chairman of the Illinois Charter School Commission, a defendant in the suit along with Prairie Crossing and the Illinois State Board of Education.

Richmond confirmed that, if the judge’s decision is not reversed on appeal, the school will have to close. “There’s a lot of panic at the school right now,” he said.

He contended that the charter school did as much as it could to diversify its student body but that, as required by the state, its students were chosen by lottery.

“The reason why it’s happening, when all is said and done, is because of money,” Richmond said.