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U-46 Board discusses charter school contract

By Seth Hancock
  “We end up becoming de facto board members for this charter school. I don’t want to go there. Part of a charter is inherently giving them independence to operate with these guidelines,” said School District U-46 Board of Education member Veronica Noland during a special meeting on Monday, May 22 to discuss contract negotiations with the Elgin Math and Science Academy.
  Noland added: “Getting into the nitty-gritty of setting a floor, giving them a ceiling, asking them for their yearly plans, maybe adding some kind of provision that, I don’t know, is punitive. I don’t want to go there.”
  Those comments by Noland represented one of the competing sides of the discussion as U-46 offered its proposed changes to the contract submitted by EMSA.
  On one side was Noland, Jeanette Ward and Phil Costello who sought to give more autonomy to EMSA while the district and majority sought more control over the operations of the charter school, which got initial approval by a 6-1 vote, Donna Smith the lone no vote, in April pending a “mutually agreed upon contract.” Miguel Rodriguez, the district’s chief legal officer, said a vote on the contract would likely be needed before June 19.
  Among the levels of control the district and several other board members sought included control over student discipline, the charter’s student body makeup and hiring.
  One point of contention came under EMSA’s plan for serving “at-risk” students which it set a goal in its original proposal of reaching 60 percent “at-risk.”
  EMSA “shall attract ‘at-risk’ students and maintain at least a 60 [percent] ‘at-risk’ student body each year the Charter School remains open” stated a change U-46 made to the contract.
  Ward said that EMSA was to provide a marketing plan that hopes to reach 60 percent “at-risk,” but the language, specifically the word “maintain,” sets up a requirement for that number, something she said cannot be guarantee considering EMSA would use a lottery system to select students if more families apply than there are spots. EMSA plans to have 200 students in the first year expanding to 450 by 2023 for K-8 education.
  Costello agreed that EMSA needed a “viable marketing plan to achieve a 60 percent, not to accomplish a 60 percent,” and Noland said: “It’s up to them to implement their plan, adapt it each year, modify it. I don’t want to be in control of that. That’s their job.”
  Board member Traci Ellis said “that was not my original thought, absolutely not” and added “it doesn’t even make sense,” but she later said “from my perspective I’m not asking them to guarantee.”
  Ward later suggested language that EMSA “strive to maintain” the number to which Ellis asked “or what?” Board member Sue Kerr noted “I don’t think we can say or what” while saying five years down the road the contract will need reauthorization and subjects such as this may determine if it’s reauthorized.
  Ellis said she wants to control it saying “who knows what the board will look like in five years,” but Ward replied “well, that’s up to that board” and Noland noted that’s why she doesn’t “want to define that now” as not to dictate what future boards must do.
  Noland said that “the management of the school is up to them” but Ellis said “Veronica, if it’s not in the contract it’s not part of the deal.”
  Luis Rodriguez, the district’s staff attorney, agreed the language does require meeting that mark, not simply just having a plan. Still, Smith said “I’m not sure that’s what it even says” and Kerr said EMSA should update the board each year on how it’s meeting that mark and said: “We’re not suggesting regulations, we’re suggesting that they inform us.”
  Noland asked: “Are we going to go through every single bit of their operations?”
  Ellis responded “no, but on the purpose of their existence” to which Noland retorted “well, there’s a lot more than just serving at-risk students.”
  Earlier in the discussion, Ellis said “that’s the purpose of charter schools, primarily to serve at-risk kids” and “this is not Traci making this up, it’s the law.”
  However, in the Illinois School Code under Article 27A regarding charter schools, it states the purpose of charters is “to increase learning opportunities for all pupils” with no requirement for a certain number of “at-risk” student body. It states: “Special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for at-risk pupils, consistent, however, with an equal commitment to increase learning opportunities for all other groups of pupils.”
  Another contract change by U-46 was requiring EMSA to adopt the district’s student code of conduct.
  Ward said: “I’m not ok with prescribing to them what code of conduct they have to use. I don’t think that’s necessary and it’s not a main part of the agreement, and I think they should have the latitude to adopt and develop their own student code of conduct and student discipline practices.”
  Kerry Kelly, the founding EMSA board member, didn’t rule out adopting the district’s code of conduct but said “we would like our principal to make that final decision.”
  Ellis wanted the mandate saying: “I’m not ok with just giving unfettered discretion on expelling students.”
  In EMSA’s original contract it said it would hire 0.5 of an FTE (full time employee) as a nurse, but the district changed it to 1 FTE.
  Ward opposed that change saying: “I think they should make their own hiring decisions.”
  The administration said U-46 is seeing more students with health issues, such as diabetes, and Rodriguez said “we don’t know what the (EMSA) student population will look like,” but that appeared to bolster Ward’s argument that U-46 shouldn’t be mandating it based on speculation.
  “Instead of mandating up front,” Ward suggested a compromise that language be added that if a certain number of students with such health or special needs issues is reached EMSA would need 1 FTE nurse. Noland said the student population “will dictate the needs,” and Costello agreed.
  Ellis, Kerr, Smith and Melissa Owens all agreed with the mandate. Owens was not on the board during the initial approval vote in April.



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