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Article updated: 6/17/2013 11:02 AM

Suburban districts spend $320,800 opposing online charter school plan

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The appeal process for a proposed suburban virtual charter school was cut short last week -- but not before 18 suburban school districts spent more than $320,800 in legal fees on the issue.

The Illinois Virtual Charter School at Fox River Valley was proposed to serve students in districts from Algonquin to Plainfield. When the school boards serving those communities unanimously rejected the idea, charter applicants appealed to the state charter school commission, furthering districts' legal costs.

The outflow of money would have continued through July had the proposal's backers -- Virtual Learning Solutions -- not withdrawn their appeals last Monday after the state agreed to a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools. State charter school commission members officially ended the process Tuesday by accepting the withdrawal.

Even so, the price tag for legal bills across the region was significant.

A review of invoices for Geneva School District 304, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show attorneys billing for time spent researching the charter school issue, participating in phone conferences with administrators, writing and editing resolutions denying the charter application, drafting responses to the applicant's appeal and arguing the appeal process should be put on hold because of the moratorium.

In all, District 304 spent $34,560 on legal fees associated with the proposal from February to May.

But beyond the financial costs, school district officials are lamenting the effort staff members put into reviewing and later opposing the virtual school plan.

Administrators in all 18 districts spent a significant amount of time preparing questions for public hearings with Virtual Learning Solutions and representatives from their corporate partner, K12 Inc. Most of those questions could not be answered by the applicants.

"They went through the motions of the process at the school board level but really didn't put any effort into that process," said St. Charles District 303 Superintendent Donald Schlomann, adding that school districts had no choice but to take the proposal seriously.

"Efforts on our behalf were something that we needed to do because that's what the law demanded of us," Schlomann said.

Superintendents, communications directors and attorneys from each district met twice as a group over the course of the application process, but officials also had their own work to do. While the proposal was identical for all 18 school districts, boards of education had to vote on it independently, taking into account the unique needs of their student bodies.

In Elgin's Central Unit District 301, Superintendent Todd Stirn said he and staff members spent almost 50 hours on the charter proposal and appeal process. In Oswego, District 308 officials estimated 60 hours of staff time went into the effort.

Kris Monn, assistant superintendent for finance in the Batavia School District 101, said the entire senior management team spent at least a day reviewing the original proposal, administrators went to public hearings outside of Batavia to gather more information and Superintendent Jack Barshinger spent three days in Springfield lobbying for the one-year moratorium. He also went to Chicago for the May 15 state charter school commission hearing.

Exasperated school officials across the region say district staffers could have been spending their time in better ways.

Michael Bregy, superintendent of Community Unit District 300, said the focus on the proposed charter school kept his administrative team from working on the district's strategic plan. That project has been delayed to this summer.

What's more, Bregy said, the trips to Springfield and Chicago kept administrators from high profile end-of-year events in their communities.

"You can't put a price tag on being in your own school district with your own kids," Bregy said.

Now suburban educators will have almost a year before a similar proposal could come forward again -- and few doubt one will.

Ted Dabrowksi, who became president of Virtual Learning Solutions when Sharnell Jackson resigned last month, said he hopes the parameters for creating a virtual school are clarified during the moratorium. He did not deny the possibility of his own group applying for another charter once more specific guidelines are set.

The state charter school commission has been tasked by legislators with researching virtual schooling outcomes and costs, among other topics. An advisory council will take shape by Aug. 1 to start the project. They must submit a report to the legislature by March 1, a month before the moratorium ends.

As suburban educators breathed a collective sigh of relief last week, Bregy pointed to the win in Springfield as a good lesson that came out of the five-month proposal process.

"It did make a difference that we came together," Bregy said, referring to successful lobbying for the moratorium. He said he hopes the experience inspires districts across the region.

"I don't believe the state has ever seen such unification before with 18 school districts -- 18 large school districts," Bregy said. "I hope this is the start of a new beginning."

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