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Debate continues over U-46 charter school plan

By Seth Hancock
  The Illinois State Charter School Commission (ISCSC) heard from both proponents and opponents of the Elgin Math and Science Academy (EMSA) as the proposed charter is seeking an appeal to the School District U-46 Board of Education’s 4-3 decision in June to deny a “mutually agreed upon contract” after a 6-1 vote in April initially approved the proposal contingent on reaching a contract deal.
  A public hearing in Elgin was held on Thursday, Sept. 7 where 37 of 50 speakers supported EMSA. ISCSC officials said a meeting will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 3 at Gail Borden Library when a final decision will be rendered, and public comments can be made from 3 to 6 p.m.
  Supporters of the charter argued for more choice and competition in education while opponents have opposed more parental involvement through school choice and claimed ownership over tax dollars. Both EMSA and U-46 addressed the commission prior to the public hearing.
  Kerry Kelly, president of the EMSA board, said “we care deeply about education and we want to bring the best opportunity to these students” and added students would be educated at “the most beautiful campus in the state” at the former Fox River Day School (FRDS) in Elgin.
  Last spring, Kelly told The Examiner that EMSA has over 800 supporters on social media, over 500 supporters in writing and over 200 families have pre-registered. Through work over the summer, Kelly said at the hearing the number of students interested in attending EMSA in the first year more than doubled from over 200 to 575 and most were from low income families.
  The planned EL Education, or expeditionary learning, science curriculum is “highly regarded” for closing the achievement gap Kelly said.
  Suzanne Johnson, U-46 assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the district was worried that EMSA may operate in a deficit because of “unrealistic estimates,” such as costs for substitute teachers, and the FRDS campus is not a “viable school site” because of needed repairs.
  Johnson added that EMSA would not have the dual language program and was concerned that “not a single job posting has occurred” for EMSA. If approved, EMSA would have nearly a year to hire staff with the plan to open for the 2018-19 school year.
  Donna Smith, who has consistently opposed school choice, was the only board member not to address the commission at the hearing.
  Board member Veronica Noland, who has consistently supported EMSA, noted what she felt was “irony” from Johnson for her statement on dual language. Johnson said EMSA would only benefit a small number of students, but Noland said the district “took a risk” with its dual language program by implementing it at one school for a small number of students.
  Board member Sue Kerr, who enthusiastically approved of the EMSA proposal in April but then voted against the contract in June, said: “After much back and forth, I became convinced that the charter would not be financially stable nor in the best interest of the students.”
  Kerr and Johnson also were concerned that EMSA’s appeal proposal to the ISCSC is seeking more in the Per Capita Tuition Charge (PCTC), from 92 percent to 100 percent, and seeking to open more spaces for students, from 450 total students to 702 at full enrollment, and board member Melissa Owens, who opposed the contract in June but was not on the board in April, said U-46 would have no oversight.
  The board and district administration knew that EMSA could ask for “up to 125 percent” PCTC on appeal, and U-46 would have had oversight had it approved the contract.
  Board member Traci Ellis opened with an inaccurate statement saying “I voted no four years ago, I voted no this past April.” Although expressing trepidation, Ellis did vote for the proposal in April before opposing the contract in June. EMSA attempted to receive a charter in 2014 which Ellis opposed.
  Ellis, who spent most of her time addressing how she was offended by statements made by another public commenter, said she had not heard at board meetings or through emails from any at-risk parents supporting EMSA. Many parents did speak at board meetings in support of having the choice, though of course, it is impossible to know which, if any, of the parents are at-risk per government standards.
  Board members Phil Costello and Jeanette Ward, who both have consistently supported EMSA, spoke with Ward noting tax dollars don’t belong to U-46 and Costello saying choice leads to accountability, something he sees lacking in U-46.
  “Those objecting to EMSA claim funds will be ‘diverted’ from U-46, as if the money belonged to U-46,” Ward said. “This is not U-46’s money. This is taxpayer money funding education, and funding following the student.”
  “I support parents having access to school choice rather than being locked into one address,” Costello said. “School choice advances competition that engages staff, promotes innovation and assigns direct accountability.”
  Costello added: “Since I’ve been on the board, we have never been presented with or individually evaluated any of our 57 schools’ unit performance, facility functionality or unique curriculum for their diverse student bodies.”
  Richard Johnson, the U-46 teacher union president, said EMSA would “divert valuable resources from U-46” and opponent Megan Larson said: “I strongly object to EMSA’s single-minded focus of using taxpayer money to rehab a facility outside of the district.”
  The FRDS campus is just outside of U-46 boundaries, but Kelly said the location is nearest to the U-46 schools with the most at-risk student population.
  Chuck Kreml, an Elgin resident and teacher in CUSD60 in Waukegan, supports EMSA and criticized the district’s primary focus on money over student outcomes. Kreml, a father of eight who were home schooled until this year, said Waukegan has far fewer services and less money and U-46 teachers “would hate to be in my building,” yet 90 percent of his students are passing.
  “In Elgin public schools, you would not hire me, and yet I would deliver results,” Kreml said and added: “Money does not correlate to results.”
  Toby Shaw, an Elgin councilman who supported a $1 a year lease to EMSA for the FRDS property, said the district’s opposition is “about controlling money” and asked “what is there to fear?” He said if EMSA fails then “let it fail,” but he said the true fear may be that EMSA succeeds.



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