A state appeals court has affirmed the Illinois Charter Schools Commission’s decision to overrule the Waukegan School District over the opening of a new school in the community.
In an opinion filed Jan. 25, the Illinois First District Appellate Court upheld a ruling from Cook County Circuit Court Judge Anna Helen Demacopolous, who allowed the Lawndale Educational and Regional Network Charter School to proceed with opening a campus within Waukegan Community Unit School District 60.
According to the opinion, District 60 initially rejected LEARN’s charter school proposal, but the Commission heard LEARN’s appeal, determined its plan complied with state law and agreed to a charter, which the Illinois State Board of Education certified. District 60 appealed that ruling, arguing the Commission violated the Open Meetings Act, but Demacopolous sided with the commission and dismissed the remainder of the district’s complaints. The school opened in the fall of 2015 while the matter was pending in circuit court; it serves 200 students from kindergarten through third grade.
District 60 appealed that ruling, arguing the Commission and ISBE lost jurisdiction by failing to adhere to statutory timelines, reasserted the inadequacy of the initial LEARN proposal and Open Meetings Act violations and alleged a violation of due process rights, while also stating Demacopolous was wrong to dismiss the remainder of its complaint.
LEARN, a nonprofit agency, opened its first charter school in 2001 and as of 2014 operated eight schools in the Chicago area, including one in North Chicago, serving 3,600 elementary and middle school students. District 60 denied LEARN’s Waukegan proposal on Jan. 6, 2015, citing a lack of community support, concerns about services to special education students and those for whom English was not a primary language, the lack of “significant achievement” at the North Chicago school and “lingering questions about climate and culture in LEARN schools.”
Justice Eileen O’Neill Burke wrote the opinion affirming Demacopolous’ finding; Justices Robert E. Gordon and David Ellis concurred.
While the panel said neither party disputed the timelines, Burke explained the “true purpose” of the law’s reporting and certification requirements is to expedite proceedings rather than protect a specific right that would give the district standing for a legal complaint. The district expressed concerns about uncertainty, which Burke said is inherent in any unresolved proceeding, and therefore insufficient grounds to allege damage.
Burke also explained the panel’s role is to review the finding of the commission that overturned the district, not whether Demacopolous properly upheld its ruling. In so doing, it determined the commission properly found LEARN’s proposal met statutory requirements, including: identifying a sufficient number of locations, demonstrating an economic plan that did not raise solvency concerns for the charter or district, adequately explaining plans to serve special education, English language learner and at-risk students, and that the commission sufficiently considered whether a charter school would operate in the best interests of the students it was designed to serve.
“When reviewing the findings of fact from an administrative agency, we cannot simply reweigh the evidence and substitute our judgment in for that of the agency,” Burke wrote.
The commission and ISBE argued the district could not allege due process violations against other state agencies. The panel agreed, but it did find the district could allege Open Meetings Act violations. However, it said Demacopolous could only have voided the commission’s vote if it was a final action that took place in a closed session, and as such would not grant the requested relief.
The panel also said Demacopolous was correct in dismissing the district’s remaining complaints, as the district failed “to cite any legal authority or develop a coherent legal argument” supporting its position.
According to Cook County court records, District 60 is represented by the firm of Franczek Sullivan, of Chicago.
The Charter Schools Commission is represented by the firm of Odelson & Sterk, of Evergreen Park.