The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Appeal decision allows for U-46 charter school
By Seth Hancock
After months of negotiations with School District U-46 went in vain and after years of trying to bring a charter school to the district, the Elgin Math and Science Academy (EMSA) will become a reality after a 5-3 vote by the Illinois State Charter School Commission (ISCSC) to approve an appeal on Tuesday, Oct. 3 at the Gail Borden Library in Elgin.
When asked her feelings on the approval after the decision was rendered, Kerry Kelly, president of the EMSA board, was all business.
“We’ve got to start looking for a principal,” Kelly said. “That’s the first thing. The principal is foremost in our mind, hiring a high quality principal.”
Kelly said there will be an Expeditionary Learning, the planned science curriculum to be used by EMSA, national conference held in Chicago in October which should bring good potential candidates. A principal must be hired by Dec. 1 under the ISCSC’s approval.
EMSA will receive 100 percent of the Per Capita Tuition Charge (PCTC) funding from U-46, a little over $10,000 per student, which is above the 92 percent it sought from the district when EMSA attempted to gain approval by the U-46 Board of Education.
The charter school will open in August 2018 and classes will be held at the Neil Building located at the former Fox River Day School site in Elgin in the first year. EMSA is capped at 400 students a year for the first five years, and any renovations to the facilities must be paid for through private funding.
ISCSC commissioner David Feinberg, who voted in favor of the charter, said “there is inherent risk with anything new” but U-46 has the funds to take such a risk. He also called the EMSA location an “unbelievable facility in an unbelievable location.”
“I had the opportunity to visit the Neil Building,” Feinberg said. “I’ve visited many potential charter schools that would serve as new schools that have been considered for opening. I have never encountered a building as suitable for a new school as the Neil Building.”
Commissioner Carlos Perez, also a yes vote, said there was “not much debate about the educators to provide a quality education for the children, and that is what first and foremost a school ought to be” and added other charters have “truly changed the lives of children” with less funding. Troy Ratliff, a yes vote, said “this is a district that has the funds to support this risk” and “sometimes you have to take a risk.”
Commissioner DeRonda Williams cast the fifth yes vote, leading to applause from the EMSA supporters, said “I have confidence in the team that’s in place” to run EMSA.
“I’m so thankful to all of the volunteers, our design team and our board,” Kelly said. “We put in tremendous hours. We’re looking to expand that, bring in some additional help to spread the hours out a little bit. We’re looking at probably a couple more 12-hour days, 80-hour weeks maybe.”
The journey to bring the charter school to U-46 began back in 2014 when EMSA first sought approval from the district, which was denied by a 6-1 vote, and also was denied its appeal to the ISCSC. Board member Veronica Noland was the lone supporter of EMSA in 2014 while current board members Traci Ellis and Donna Smith both opposed it then.
In the second go around, EMSA looked to be in a more favorable position with the U-46 board receiving a 6-1 approval, Smith the lone no vote, in April “pending a mutually agreed upon contract,” but the board reversed its decision in June when it voted 4-3 to deny the contract that had been agreed upon. Ellis and Sue Kerr flipped their votes from April to deny the June contract, Smith again voted against EMSA and Melissa Owens voted against the contract but was not on the board for the April vote.
Noland along with board members Phil Costello and Jeanette Ward supported EMSA throughout the process.
After being given approval on the charter by the board in April and going through months of negotiations to reach a contract, the denial of the contract meant time lost Kelly said.
“That felt like so much lost time,” Kelly said. “We put so much time and energy into those negotiations and to answering 40 questions submitted, and now it feels like all of our efforts are going to really go towards building a school. That’s exciting.”
The contract negotiation process by the U-46 administration was ethically questionable, and Ward said the district used a “delay tactic” in putting the conditions of reaching an agreed upon contract. Former board member Cody Holt lost reelection prior to the April vote, and Owens opposed school choice during the campaign.
The U-46 administration recommended denial in April and continued to recommend denial even after the board asked it to negotiate a contract leaving the appearance that the negotiations were not done in “good faith.” Not only did the administration recommend denial, it had the board vote on a resolution that effectively nullified the April approval.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, U-46 had outside legal counsel argue that there was no approval in April. Although not naming her, the legal counsel argued against points made by Ward.
Ward told The Examiner after the ISCSC decision: “I think [counsel] should know that he reports to me and not the other way around, me and the board.”
Nearly unanimously the ISCSC agreed with Ward, even those you voted against the EMSA appeal. Commissioner Bill Farmer, who voted no, said “it is my perception that U-46 was not in compliance with the process in how they reviewed it” and Kathryn Robbins, also a no vote, said she came to the “same conclusion about the compliance issue.”
Farmer, who also voted no in 2014 to EMSA’s appeal, said the charter “made sufficient gains” from the first time around but the charter was not “in the best interest of students.”
Opponents of EMSA have argued that it’s U-46’s money and that the district should solely be the arbiters of how children should be educated, but Ward supports school choice and parents being the primary arbiters of education options.
“Those objecting to EMSA claimed funds would 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.”