State officials have told Pingree Grove charter school leaders to make clear the membership fees they outline in an agreement with parents are voluntary. If the fees were mandatory -- like some parents have been led to believe -- Cambridge Lakes Charter School would be violating state law.
Larry Fuhrer, CEO of Northern Kane Educational Corp., which runs the Community Unit District 300 charter school, issued a letter to parents last week stating the fees have always been voluntary and no student has ever been denied enrollment because a parent didn't pay them.
In fact, Fuhrer said, if the school had enforced payment of the fees, enrollment would have dipped below 20 students per year. About 920 students are signed up for the 2013-14 school year, meaning the vast majority of families have skipped the membership and its promise of a voice in the school's corporate governance.
The Illinois State Board of Education contacted Northern Kane in March to determine if the fees were mandatory, reminding Fuhrer that charter school law does not allow for tuition charges, though schools can charge "reasonable fees for textbooks, instructional materials and student activities." Determining what is reasonable is done on a case-by-case basis, the letter said.
At Cambridge Lakes, parents must sign a "Teaching and Learning Compact" upon their children's enrollment that includes a paragraph about supporting the organization. The support includes volunteer service and annual membership in Northern Kane Educational Corp., which, in recent years, came at a cost of $120 per year or $5,000 for a lifetime membership.
"We understand ... We will become a Northern Kane Corporate Member to demonstrate our support of its programs and services," the compact reads. "The annual fee is due on October 1st each year but may be paid earlier."
A May 30 letter from State Superintendent Chris Koch to Fuhrer recommended the school reword its compact and make clear that membership is voluntary.
But, according to a July 12 letter to Fuhrer, ISBE received a fresh round of complaints from parents this month.
"These parents informed the State Board that Cambridge Lakes' parents uniformly understand the contribution to be mandatory," the letter said, later demanding that school officials "immediately clarify that membership is not required."
Fuhrer's email to parents last week fulfilled that clarification request while also chastising parents for complaining to the state board before bringing the issue up with him or other school officials.
Fuhrer said Wednesday he was disappointed parents went to the state level and wasted officials' time.
"They've got an incredible amount of things to do," Fuhrer said. "To get them involved in local administration? It's just nonsensical."