Less than two years after moving into space at DuPage County's former youth home, a nonprofit school that helps young people with severe behavioral, emotional and learning disorders is struggling to increase its enrollment.
As a result, county officials have decided not to charge Joseph Academy rent through the end of September. They also have forgiven missed rent payments of about $12,000 a month dating back to November.
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"Nobody wants to waive rent," DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said. "This is the taxpayers' assets. But I think that because of the compelling merit of the mission (of the academy) and because of the situation we're in, this is a reasonable step to take."
Joseph Academy -- which also has locations in Des Plaines, Melrose Park and Hometown -- opened its school in the former DuPage County Juvenile Detention Facility in 2012. The facility in Wheaton was closed in January of that year when DuPage started sending its youth detainees to Kane County.
The academy, which follows the "Boys Town" model of education, partners with school districts that refer students to its program.
But Mike Schack, the academy's executive director, says cuts to Illinois' budget have prevented school districts from getting the reimbursement money from the state they need to send students to the academy.
"It's getting difficult to place children into special education programs -- both public and private -- because the state reimbursement has not been there," Schack said. "There have been situations where some DuPage districts simply didn't have the funding."
Schack said Joseph Academy was hoping to have 18 students enrolled at the Wheaton facility this year. Right now, there are eight.
By temporarily not charging rent, county officials say they want to give the academy time to get more students.
"The idea was to give them an opportunity to get this working so we could get rent," county board member Robert Larsen said.
The county board is expected to revisit the issue in September. At that time, it will decide whether it wants to continue the lease agreement with Joseph Academy, which isn't set to expire until July 2016.
County board member Jim Healy said he hopes more school districts take advantage of the program Joseph Academy provides.
"Prior to this, we were sending our kids out of this county, some of them having to travel long distances," Healy said. "This is something that we absolutely need to try and keep in the county."
Schack said it all depends on whether the state comes through with the money school districts need.
"Everybody is waiting for the funding to come back, and hopefully it will," he said. "We're doing a great service for the kids and helping the school districts."
Sections of the former youth home are being used by the county's Office of Emergency Management and the sheriff's adult work release program.
Cronin said it makes sense to also have Joseph Academy using part of the building.
"Because if Joseph Academy succeeds in their mission," he said, "we won't need youth homes."