District 300 officials optimistic charter school's problems will be fixed
Community Unit District 300 school board members were cautiously optimistic Wednesday night that problems at Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove might be resolved sufficiently for its contract renewal to move forward by month end.
After more than two hours of grilling the charter school's new management, leaders at the Algonquin-based district still had reservations about whether the school's administration could satisfactorily fix issues identified over the past two years.
District 300 Superintendent Fred Heid said significant progress has been made on contract terms and corrective action plans to resolve those issues, including compliance with state and federal requirements for supporting students with disabilities, students in special education, and English language learners, as well as some financial concerns revealed by audits.
"The contract is now significantly improved and provides specificity regarding compliance, finances, programs and renewal process," Heid said.
Officials demanded removal of some wording from the contract that would have made the district liable for debts, if the charter school were to close. They also eliminated a preschool program from being part of the original charter school, and any provisions for automatic renewal of the charter.
The renewal contract includes corrective action plans, an accountability plan, language clarifying tuition for nonresidents and for full-time online students, and ensuring the preschool finances remain separate from District 300 funding and audits.
"The issue for me is one of trust," school board member Joe Stevens said. "You have too many gray areas that you haven't yet resolved."
The current five-year contract for Cambridge Lakes, which opened in 2007, expires at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Charter schools operate within public school districts' boundaries and are funded through property taxes -- and accountable to the districts funding them -- but they are run by a separate, nonelected board and administration.
Heid said some outstanding issues remain, including negotiation over the length of the contract -- district officials propose renewal until 2020, while the Northern Kane Education Corp., which runs the charter school, is seeking renewal until 2021, if the school complies with the corrective action plans.
For auditing purposes, the charter school's administration must maintain time and effort logs for employees whose salaries are paid for partly with District 300 taxes for programs in kindergarten through 12th grades and through other funding sources for non-contracted programs, such as after school, preschool and adult academy, Heid said.
Heid said an accountability plan will be developed collaboratively based on the model used by the Illinois Charter School Commission. It will outline specific and measurable metrics for annual monitoring and areas to be reviewed during a renewal process -- including academic performance, fiscal management, and compliance with the contract and state and federal laws.
Cambridge Lakes' management structure was changed after heated public meetings in June. Larry Fuhrer, the school's former executive director who was criticized for his handling of concerns raised by parents and District 300 administrators, stepped down from his post and managing day-to-day operations of the charter school.
Julie Mahaffey, Northern Kane Board chairwoman, reassured District 300 school board members Wednesday that the new management team has put checks and balances in place so Fuhrer could not resume control of the school.
"If everything is met on paper, I'm willing to take a gamble on the new administration," school board member Susie Kopacz said. "I think a lot of work needs to be done, but the new board is a change in the right direction."
School board member Kathleen Burley said rebuilding the trust between the school's management and district won't happen overnight.
Heid will present his recommendation on whether the contract renewal should move ahead at Tuesday's school board meeting. The board must make a decision by Aug. 29, he said.
Whether or not the charter is renewed, school board members expressed concerns over whether the school might even open on time for this school year. Construction of a tutoring center undertaken within the school without proper permits could endanger classes beginning Sept. 6.
At present, the school does not have an occupancy permit authorized by the Kane County Regional Office of Education, said Sylvia Polletta, the new chief executive officer and chief operating officer for Northern Kane Educational Corp.
"I will work with our architect, contractor, and engineer to submit the necessary plans and paperwork as quickly as possible," Polletta said.