The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 charter school dissent follows approval
By Seth Hancock
A vote on the contract with the Elgin Math and Science Academy (EMSA) charter school will be taken soon by the Board of Education in School District U-46.
Recently the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) announced a $950,000 federal grant, which will come in two parts, will be given to the effort to “support the opening” of the charter school according to a press release from EMSA.
EMSA has received wide public support including at board meetings before the initial approval was given via a 6-1 vote, Donna Smith the lone no vote, in April pending a “mutually agreed upon contract.” At a March public hearing 24 of 30 members of the public who spoke supported the charter, and 17 more proponents spoke on the night of the initial approval.
Despite the charter already being given approval and contract negotiations under way, now opponents want the board to renege on its commitment to work towards a “mutually agreed upon contract” and deny EMSA’s charter. At the May 15 board meeting, four people spoke against the charter and those same four were among eight who spoke against it at a special meeting to discuss the contract negotiations on Monday, May 22.
EMSA plans to open in 2018 for kindergarten through third grade expanding a grade level each year through eighth grade in 2023 when the charter hopes to have full enrollment of 450 students. The site for the school is the former Fox River Country Day School campus in Elgin, and EMSA wants $10,000 to follow each student who attends the school making it $4.5 million at full enrollment.
Veronica Betz said she’s “outraged that the board is considering giving away up to $4.5 million to” EMSA and Megan Larson said “EMSA doesn’t pass a basic cost-benefit analysis” and claimed the charter would use the same or weaker curriculum as U-46.
Larry Bury was concerned with 10 percent of EMSA’s budget going to debt-service by the fifth year and he complained that it was unfair that EMSA provided babysitting to supporters to help those parents come to meetings to support the charter.
Opponents painted EMSA as being for the elite, even some making claims of it being racist.
Kerry Kelly, the founding EMSA board member, said at the May 22 meeting that the time now is meant to discuss the contract, not the merits of EMSA as it has already been approved, and opponents were providing “half truths and financial misstatements.”
“We’ve answered these, and we’re willing and available to answer further questions,” Kelly said adding that EMSA has over 800 supporters on social media, over 500 supporters in writing and over 200 families have pre-registered. She added that “our supporters are representative of this district” spanning all racial and political among other groups.
The Examiner asked Kelly to respond to some of the accusations from opponents, and on the claim that EMSA is taking money away from U-46 she said: “EMSA will be a part of the U-46 District, and therefore, the money EMSA receives from U-46 will educate the children living in the school district.”
Kelly noted that according the ISBE report card U-46 spends $12,094 per student while EMSA plans to spend $10,000 per student so “in other words, EMSA will provide a unique, high-quality education to U-46 District students with less funding per pupil than other district schools.”
Kelly added: “While every U-46 program has a cost, EMSA’s cost is less than half of 1 percent of U-46’s budget in its first year and 1 percent in its sixth year, making it a sound investment, especially when our anticipated outcomes include improved test scores, engaged students, and happy parents.”
On the claim EMSA will use the same or weaker curriculum as U-46, Kelly said the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, which is cross-curricular, that will be used is “completely different” and “the school’s forest preserve setting will allow EMSA to take hands-on learning to a whole new level.”
Kelly added: “Students will embark on Learning Expeditions, extensively studying a topic that is relevant to the students (e.g., Fox River ecosystem) and culminating with a product that benefits the community (e.g., a Fox River water quality report to the county board)…. EMSA students will spend significant time in the field completing hands-on research, making it an attractive option to active learners who may not flourish in lecture-style classrooms.”
For math, EMSA will use the Eureka math model which U-46 also uses, but Kelly said that “EMSA will accelerate the program by requiring all eighth grade students to complete algebra” which is not a U-46 requirement.
On the portion of EMSA’s budget going to debt-services, Kelly said: “Our debt ratio is significantly below acceptable levels. While some new charter schools build entirely new facilities costing tens of millions of dollars, EMSA will lease a former school built in 2005 that needs cosmetic improvements. We’ll be there for the first five years, then we will secure tax exempt financing for the renovation of the older buildings on campus to house our middle school students. This will allow us to put more money in the classroom to educate our students.”
Opponents also claimed EMSA will not be open to families outside of Elgin. Kelly said that “EMSA warmly welcomes all students who live in the U-46 district” to apply and “if there is more demand than seats, EMSA will host a blind lottery to fairly determine which students will attend.”
Kelly did say that because EMSA hopes to reach 60 percent of its student body being at-risk students it does plan to focus its recruitment efforts in Elgin because the majority of at-risk students within the district live in Elgin, but by law it must be open to students throughout the district.
Opponents have also asked for more transparency in the process, something board member Jeanette Ward has helped to achieve. On May 22, Ward said she requested the district provide the contract documents being negotiated be made public which led to the administration doing so.
As negotiations continue, Ward also requested that board members be able to attend in order to observe, not participate. Board members Phil Costello and Veronica Noland agreed but Smith, Traci Ellis, Sue Kerr and Melissa Owens did not.