With some hesitance, Elgin schools' officials gave conditional approval Monday night for a charter school proposal to move forward.
The Elgin Area School District U-46 school board voted 6-1 approving a resolution authorizing the Elgin Math and Science Academy charter school proposal provided both parties can agree on a satisfactory contract by June 30.
The board went against the recommendation of district administrators who had urged denial of the charter proposal in March based on flaws in its education and business plans, and for not adequately addressing the needs of at-risk populations.
A 2014 proposal by the same Elgin Charter School Initiative was denied by the U-46 school board and the Illinois State Charter School Commission.
"I feel good about what we have put together," school board member Veronica Noland said. "I feel that this is the right way to go. I base this on the overwhelming amount of input that I have received in favor of this charter."
Noland said it was a difficult decision to go against the district staff's recommendation, but she believes the charter school's expeditionary learning model could be replicated.
Critics say the school would draw resources away from public education while creating an "elite" school that won't provide equal opportunity for all students, especially those with special needs, such as English language learners and students with disabilities.
U-46 is a majority-minority district with more than 40,000 students. Because charter schools operate within public school districts' boundaries, they are funded through property taxes and accountable to the districts funding them.
Supporters spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting imploring the school board to give its blessing to the charter.
"We believe the proposed curriculum, environment and school culture will ignite a passion in our students for life-long learning," said Melanie Gibb of Elgin, a member of the academy design team.
The school's opening hinges on the group's ability to borrow nearly $4 million to finance needed renovations of the proposed site -- the former Fox River Country Day School at 1600 Dundee Ave., owned by the city of Elgin and near Kane County Forest Preserve land -- and to initially fund operations.
School board member Traci O'Neal Ellis said there are a lot of problems with the current proposal.
"This is an undesirable location from my perspective," she said, questioning why the district would pay for upgrades to a building it doesn't own. "U-46 has buildings that we already own and maintain. Somehow I feel like this proposal became more about that property than about the school itself."
Despite lingering concerns about the school's finances, Ellis voted for conditional approval provided the charter group addresses the board's legitimate concerns by the final contract submittal.
Several elected officials from the city of Elgin and Kane County voiced their support for the proposal and for filling that site with another school.
"This facility would be a good neighbor," said Becky Gilliam of West Dundee, a Kane County Board member in whose district the school would fall. "To have these buildings filled again will be so important for the economic development, and also the well-being of the community."
Elgin City Councilwoman Carol Rauschenberger said there was much opposition to the Aurora-based Illinois Math and Science Academy when it was first proposed as well.
"What I look forward to is a productive collaboration with U-46, city of Elgin, EMSA and the Kane County Forest Preserve District," she said.
If ultimately approved, the charter school would open in August 2018 with students in kindergarten through third grade. Each year, another grade would be added, eventually offering classes through eighth grade.
In year one, with 200 students, the academy would cost U-46 roughly $2 million -- less than half of 1 percent of the district's roughly $512 million in revenues for the current school year. At full enrollment of 450 students in the sixth year, the financial impact would be less than 1 percent of U-46's current revenue, according to the group.