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U-46 Board discusses charter school issues

By Seth Hancock
  Board of Education members in School District U-46 debated financial issues as it discussed a contract with the Elgin Math and Science Academy (EMSA) charter school at a special meeting on Monday, May 22.
  Opponents of the charter have decried that EMSA would take money out of the school district, but board member Jeanette Ward noted that its money following the child which sparked a philosophical debate.
  “This is funding following the student and it’s not EMSA taking money away from U-46,” Ward said. “The funding follows the student which is the point of charter schools and school choice.”
  Donna Smith, the lone no vote in April during a 6-1 initial approval of the charter pending a “mutually agreed upon contract,” responded: “You know, I have to say something to that. I understand what you’re saying that funding follows the student, however if you are taking five students out of one building, you are right the funding is following the student, but it does not allow us to adjust our budget in any way. So there is an impact on our students and our classrooms when those funds actually follow those students.”
  That came during a discussion on a portion of the contract allowing EMSA, which currently expects 450 students at full capacity, the ability to expand up to 600 students “based on available space and demand.”
  Noland disagreed with Smith’s assertion that U-46 wouldn’t be able to adjust its budget if the demand and space were there to expand at EMSA.
  Noland asked: “If they have an increase four years from now we couldn’t adjust our budget for that?”
  Smith initially said “no” but continued: “We could, we could, but it’s not actually the funding following the student because that sounds to me, and maybe I’m wrong, but that sounds to me that we don’t have to educate that student so we’re saving that money. But that is not a fact because if you take 20 students out of the building and they come from seven different grade levels we are not going to be able to decrease our staff.”
  “It just sounds so simple that the funding follows the student so we don’t need the money,” Smith added.
  Noland responded that “there are a lot of arguments that are being made tonight that are being made very simply on both sides” and added “I will object to that kind of a blanket statement as well…. When the board president says that it will not reduce costs, then I have a problem with that.”
  “I did not say that it will not reduce costs…. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s very complicated. We will have to figure out where that money will come from,” Smith said.
  Noland said that the district will make adjustments and added adjustments are supposed to be made every year depending on numbers and regardless of whether there’s a charter school or not. 
  At 450 students EMSA would receive $10,000 per student for a $4.5 million total. In contrast, U-46 spends over $12,000 per student according to Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) data meaning that with the charter the district would be able to increase its spending per pupil for the students remaining in district schools.
  Board member Traci Ellis said “what’s not complicated is that if we send out $4.5 million we have to find that money somewhere” and said “closing down schools, laying off teachers, cutting programs” is “where we get money.”
  “Has anyone mentioned closing schools? This is the first I’m hearing about that,” said board member Phil Costello.
  At the end of the meeting, U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said the district will be considering closing some schools in the Bartlett area and implied EMSA could be a cause.
  “As we near the 18-19 school year, we will be having discussions… about future options, possibilities, which might include closing one to two schools, maybe more depending on the number of students EMSA pulls. We have to do that for the sake of our finances.”
  Sanders said regarding state funding that “no matter what they do, we’re going to end up with at least a $12 million deficit.”
  Costello said “we’ve got a lot of factors” that may go into making a decision to close down schools and said the administration, even during months of discussion before the April vote, that EMSA would have an effect on decisions regarding school closures.
  Ward also noted that U-46, despite the fiscal climate, expanded operations this year to provide full-day kindergarten district wide.
  “This is one of the reasons that I gave for not expanding operations to include full-day kindergarten at 55 FTE (full-time employees) and at $22 million (initial starting cost) was because of this possibility,” Ward said.
  On the ability to expand EMSA’s enrollment to 600, newly seated board member Melissa Owens, who was not on the board during the April approval, said “we ought to have some measure of control,” and board member Sue Kerr said “we have to have some say in it.”
  Kerry Kelly, the founding EMSA board member, said that charter contracts from other districts generally allow for “reasonable expansion.” Noland said she didn’t “like the idea of a hard cap” and “I don’t think we should be restricting them in that way.”
  At the end of that portion of the discussion, considering the board’s majority has not consistently supported discussions of fiscal responsibility, Ward quipped: “Well, it’s nice that we’ve all become fiscal hawks now.”
  In the contract, transportation would largely be the responsibility of EMSA to figure out, but some bus routes through Elgin may be discussed. That sparked a philosophical disagreement as Owens and Ellis said parents are dependents of the state while Ward said parents are capable of parental responsibility and transporting their kids if needed.
  Owens said “I don’t know how on earth they’re going to do that without transportation” saying EMSA would likely have a large number of low-income students.
  Ward said: “I have a philosophical comment about transportation. If parents must provide transportation from say Bartlett or Wayne, it is one way to get parents more invested in the education of their students. There are ways around that problem. Just because you live in a low income and poverty, like the way I grew up, doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way around that. There are ways.”
  Ellis said the district “needs” to provide more transportation and “I can’t even tell you how much I disagree with that last comment that there’s ways around it.”



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