With some reservation, a state panel Tuesday sanctioned a new charter school to serve Elgin-area students, over the objections of officials at the state's second-largest school district.
In June, the Elgin Area School District U-46 school board denied the Elgin Charter School Initiative's proposal, citing concerns with the plan's economic soundness, the proposed school site, how the school would serve at-risk students, and inadequate transportation.
After more than two hours of testimony and deliberation Tuesday, the Illinois State Charter School Commission in a 5-3 vote reversed U-46's decision, thereby granting a five-year charter.
"That was a nail-biter," said a relieved Kerry Kelly, president of the Elgin Charter School Initiative. "There were some tense moments."
Several commission members voiced concerns echoing U-46 leaders about the school's finances and if a charter school would be in the best interest of U-46 students.
"I stand by my team's review and I continue to have concerns with the academic, financial and facility issues that we shared with the commission these past few months," U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said. "I will need to get the board's direction regarding next steps, if any."
U-46 serves more than 40,000 students, of whom 58 percent are from low-income families.
"As I look at the funding, it seems real risky to me, (but) sometimes you take risks," said Commissioner Troy Ratliff, who reluctantly voted for the proposal.
The Elgin Math and Science Academy charter school now will open in August 2018 under state oversight. It would cater to roughly 200 students in kindergarten to third grade in the first year, adding grades each year through eighth grade. Enrollment will be capped at 400 students by the fifth year, per the commission's stipulation.
Since 2011, the state commission has authorized eight charter schools -- including Prairie Crossing in Grayslake -- serving more than 3,800 students. In almost 90 percent of cases, local school boards' decisions are upheld, said Hosanna Mahaley-Jones, commission executive director.
A 2014 proposal by the same charter group was denied by the U-46 board and the state charter commission. This time, commission staff members recommended approval of the Elgin charter based on several factors, including whether U-46's denial complied with state charter school law.
Mahaley-Jones said the U-46 school board gave conditional approval to the charter school on April 10, which falls within the deadline provided by state law for either adopting or rejecting the proposal.
However, district officials argued that approval was not final since both sides could not agree on contract terms, which led to the school board's June 26 denial.
"Throughout this process, you have to understand, we have seen seven different budgets," Sanders said. "The last one came the night before our (board) decision."
Sanders said the modified proposal before the state commission still does not adequately serve English Language Learners and special needs students.
As its own educational entity, the Elgin charter school would be responsible for providing all services for special education and at-risk students -- its target audience.
Kelly said already 500 people are vying for the roughly 200 spots available next year.
The charter school will draw 100 percent of state funding for tuition -- roughly $10,300 per student -- plus categorical funding, such as special education and Title I funds for low-income students. Its anticipated budget for the first year of operations is roughly $2.1 million -- expected to grow to $4.8 million at full enrollment.
The group also is promised $950,000 in federal grant funding to assist with the facility's opening. That money would come in the form of reimbursements and be used toward hiring a principal by Dec. 1, as required by the commission, and for training staff members and teachers on an expeditionary learning model. The school will be housed in the Neill building on the campus of the former Fox River Country Day School at 1600 Dundee Ave., which will be leased from the city of Elgin for $1 yearly.
Built in 2005, the building houses 13 classrooms and will require $200,000 in repairs to get it up and running for next school year, according to the group. U-46 officials disagree, estimating the cost will be closer to $500,000.