Chalkboard - Susan Troller

Backers of the Madison Preparatory Academy and Madison School Board members appear to have ironed out some of the major wrinkles in the plans for the controversial new charter school aimed at improving the academic performance of minority students.

But the devil remains in the details, board members say. Bringing several issues into clearer focus and then getting agreement will be essential to move the project forward. A final vote by the School Board will take place before the end of the year.

Details to be examined include the fine print on a broad agreement announced last week between the Madison teachers union and organizers of the Urban League-sponsored charter school.

"There are still some tremendously big questions that haven't been answered about how this agreement would actually work," says Marj Passman, School Board vice president. "It's not clear to me that all the parties are on the same page on all the issues, large and small."

For example, she says, it's uncertain how a proposed bonus system would work for teachers hired by Madison Prep compared with district teachers, or whether the new school would hire union members for custodial services or as food service workers.

Passman sent an email to fellow board members on Wednesday suggesting that district representatives, the Urban League, Madison Teachers Inc. and AFSME representatives sit down with a negotiator and get an agreement on paper.

"Until that happens, as board members we won't have all the pieces in place to make a decision about this proposal," she says.

School Superintendent Daniel Nerad agrees with Passman's assessment, and hopes a majority of the board will direct the administration to pursue the kind of meeting Passman suggests.

"Before we can do an administrative analysis on the Madison Prep proposal we need to answer quite a few more questions. That means there's still significant work ahead," Nerad says.

Nerad's office must provide an administrative analysis of the charter proposal to the board at least 15 days before the board votes to approve or deny the new school. A likely date for the final vote would be at the board's regular meeting on Nov. 28, although the agenda for that meeting has not been determined.

When Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Urban League, first suggested a single-sex charter school in Madison for middle and high school boys that would specifically target the needs of low-income and minority students, the cost was a lofty $28,000 per student.

Madison Prep has apparently side-stepped gender equity issues that threatened to scuttle the project by proposing to simultaneously open a single-sex girls school offering the same curriculum.

In addition, the budget has been reworked significantly over the last year, and per-student costs are now projected at around $11,000.

"The budget certainly has been moving in the right direction," says School Board member Ed Hughes, who has persistently questioned the negative financial impact Madison Prep could have on the district's other schools, and the 24,000-plus students not attending the charter.

"It's probably not realistic to figure that Madison Prep has to be absolutely cost-neutral," Hughes says, adding that innovations to boost student achievement, like the charter's proposed longer school day or year, might justify additional spending. But Hughes says he'd prefer to see the district exercise some of its unused taxing authority to finance the additional cost of Madison Prep rather than have to balance Madison Prep's needs by trimming other district programs or services.

"We haven't seen final budget numbers or a final business plan from the Urban League yet," Hughes says. According to Nerad, the Urban League has promised that the district will have a business plan by Friday.

"Will this be the final document? I'm not sure. There will perhaps still be some conversations going on about that over the next few weeks," Nerad says.

Another potentially contentious outstanding issue due for discussion by the board, the administration and the Urban League is what accountability to the district the new charter school will have.

Discussion surrounding governance and Madison Prep will be front and center at a School Board operations committee meeting Monday at 6:45 p.m., chaired by board member Arlene Silveira.

"We've come a long way in our discussions with Kaleem and the Urban League but a lot of open issues remain," Silveira says. "We should resolve those sooner, rather than later."

Both Silveira and Hughes are sounding notes of cautious optimism regarding recent Madison Prep developments, which include an apparent agreement between Madison Teachers Inc. and the Urban League that the new school would operate as an instrumentality of the district, with much of the staff under contract with the district through its collective bargaining agreement that's in place through June 2013.

In the community at large, passions run high and opinions are deeply divided over Madison Prep.

The whole range of feelings was expressed at a public hearing Monday evening that packed the Doyle Administration Building with a standing-room only crowd.

For well over three hours, speakers lined up to have their say in three-minute speeches that were occasionally personal and heartfelt, sometimes angry and accusatory. Supporters outweighed opponents about 2 to 1.

Backers of Madison Prep call it an issue of racial equity. They say the proposed school is a long-overdue remedy to address a 40-year history of failure by local public schools to successfully educate minority and low-income students.

Renowned University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, who sits on the board for Madison Prep, calls the drop-out rate and low achievement of African-American boys in public schools "a house on fire," a crisis that demands immediate and drastic attention.

Several Madison Prep supporters from the business community argue that the charter school should be given a chance to experiment in a bold way, with any successful lessons a potential boon for the rest of the district.

Opponents fall into variety of camps. Some object to the charter school as a step toward privatization of public schools, calling it "factory schooling," with little oversight of its budget and operations.

Others worry that resources directed toward Madison Prep will harm the district's other students by requiring the rest of the district to further tighten its belt during already grim economic times.

Some, including a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union and a UW-Madison psychology professor, question the effectiveness and research behind Madison Prep's intention to educate boys and girls separately.

And, for formerly enthusiastic Madison Prep backer Don Severson, a self-described conservative district watchdog, the announcement last week that Madison Prep has agreed to work within the current contract with the Madison teachers union for much of its staff was enough to make him withdraw his support.

Following Monday's meeting, Madison School Board President James Howard, like other board members, admitted he still has many questions about the proposal.

Howard, who is black, and has children attending Madison schools, says he understands the impatience expressed by many members of the African-American community regarding Madison's persistent achievement gap between white students and minority students.

"I understand that people are no longer willing to wait for improvements in the future. The patience cup has overflowed," he says.

Howard suggests he would like to see an additional public meeting in a rather different format to provide a more coherent way to sort through the complex and contentious issues surrounding Madison Prep.

"I think something like a panel discussion, with focused questions regarding the proposal and its impact, could be helpful," Howard says.

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