CPS did not violate state law in moving to take over Urban Prep, appeals court rules

A large group of high school students all wearing the same uniform and have masks around their chins sing in a choir.
Students recite the school creed on Oct. 25, 2022, at Urban Prep Academy in the Englewood area of Chicago. That same month, the Chicago Board of Education voted to revoke Urban Prep's charters for its Englewood and Bronzeville campuses. An appeals court said the decision did not violate state law. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune via Getty Images)

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An Illinois state appeals court ruled Thursday that the Chicago Board of Education was within its rights when it tried to revoke the charter for embattled Urban Prep Charter School’s two high school campuses — raising questions about what’s next for Urban Prep’s students.

The court in Illinois’ First Judicial District reversed a ruling by the Cook County Circuit Court and said that a state law preventing school closures in Chicago until Jan. 15, 2025, does not apply to charter schools. Urban Prep had argued that Chicago Public Schools violated that law when it moved to revoke Urban Prep’s charters in October 2022.

The court’s decision is the latest twist in a nearly two-year battle between Chicago Public Schools and Urban Prep, which has fought to stay open amid allegations of financial mismanagement, violation of special-education rights, and sexual misconduct.

The appeals court’s decision comes as charter schools face greater scrutiny under the new board of education appointed by Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and union leader. In January, the board renewed contracts for 49 charters, most by three or four years. State law allows extensions up to 10 years.

Urban Prep has operated in Chicago for more than two decades and currently runs two high schools — one in Englewood and the other in Bronzeville — serving exclusively Black boys. State officials closed another one of its campuses in 2022 due to enrollment declines.

After the circuit court’s decision, the board agreed to renew Urban Prep’s charter in December 2023 until this month, while it pursued an appeal.

In its decision posted online Thursday, the appeals court sided with the district, and said the closure moratorium is included in a section of state law, Article 34, that applies only to district-run schools. A different section, Article 27A, applies to charter schools, the order said.

“The circuit court erred when it concluded that the moratorium temporarily stripped the school board of its statutory authority to vote against a charter school’s renewal,” the order said.

The court noted that when the Legislature has wanted any additions to Article 34 to apply to charter schools, such as laws around COVID-19, lawmakers have expressly referenced charter schools and also added that language to 27A.

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools said the ruling “has no immediate impact” on Urban Prep students. The district, which had originally planned to take over the schools, did not offer further details about what happens to Urban Prep students when school starts again in the fall.

“District officials and the Chicago Board of Education will review this ruling and determine a path forward that best supports our students,” said CPS spokesperson Mary Ann Fergus. “The district will take all necessary steps to ensure clear communication and engagement with impacted families prior to bringing forward any possible recommendations regarding this charter to the Board of Education.”

Urban Prep did not respond to an email or phone call seeking comment. Rulings by the state’s appellate courts can be appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Chicago Board of Education voted in October 2022 not to renew Urban Prep’s charter’s contracts, citing several financial and legal allegations, as well as accusations that Urban Prep founder Tim King had groomed and sexually touched a student, then hired that student as part of a quid-pro-quo scheme. King has denied those allegations. Other school leaders previously said they had complied with most of the district’s requirements; district leaders said the opposite.

Urban Prep appealed CPS’s decision to the State Board of Education, where a hearing officer sided with CPS. The school then sued in Cook County Circuit Court, arguing that their charter could not be revoked because of the state moratorium on school closures. The circuit court sided with Urban Prep last summer.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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