The threat of possible litigation has roiled the already turbulent waters surrounding the proposal for a single-sex Urban League charter school.

Madison school officials began feeling skittish over recommending a $225,000 planning grant for the Madison Preparatory Academy for Young Men after the state Department of Public Instruction raised concerns recently that the school doesn’t meet state and federal requirements to provide gender-equal education.

Now, a new legal threat has emerged, this one from Madison Teachers Inc. Together, the two issues could cause the board to pull back from supporting the planning grant, possibly as early as Thursday.

First, some background: After DPI put the planning grant on hold, the Urban League of Greater Madison last week submitted a new proposal to simultaneously establish a separate campus for girls. Kaleem Caire, Urban League president and a driving force behind Madison Prep, wants to see the schools open next year, initially with 60 sixth-grade girls and 60 sixth-grade boys. The proposal calls for adding 120 additional sixth-graders in each of the four subsequent years. Because the proposal now envisions 600 students rather 480 as originally planned, it would require more funding from the Madison Metropolitan School District than originally planned.

On Wednesday, Caire sent a memo to Madison Prep backers saying Robert Soldner of the DPI told him the new proposal with a girls’ school satisfies the agency’s concerns regarding gender equity.

Meanwhile, Madison school district administrators, attorneys and School Board members are scheduled to meet Thursday in closed session at 4:30 p.m. to discuss the new proposal. An open meeting is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. that will include public appearances and further discussion regarding the proposal. At the meeting, the board could vote on the revised plan.

Superintendent Daniel Nerad confirmed in a phone conversation Wednesday that the closed meeting may cover other potential litigation surrounding the establishment of Madison Prep related to the current union contract between Madison teachers and the school district.

School Board member Ed Hughes, an attorney, raises that prospect in a recent blog post he wrote about some of the legal landmines the district could be facing with the Madison Prep plan. Hughes notes there’s a “potentially intractable issue” between Madison Prep’s plans for its staff’s working conditions and the working conditions specified in the current collective bargaining agreement with Madison Teachers Inc., an agreement that is in effect until June 2013.

Muddying the waters even more, under the provisions of the new biennial state budget and the budget repair bill that gutted collective bargaining for public employees, the kind of “memorandums of understanding” that in the past have allowed school districts and their unions to compromise on some specific areas of their contracts are no longer permitted. Apparently, any alteration to the current contract, such as one spelling out separate working conditions for Madison Prep staff, would void the entire agreement. Disregarding these issues could provoke legal action, Hughes explains.

Board members have an obligation to the public to look at all aspects of the Madison Prep proposal, especially areas that might invite expensive lawsuits against the school district, says Marj Passman, school board vice president.

“Looking at these issues very, very deliberately is not pro or con Madison Prep. It’s pro or con litigation,” Passman says.

But Caire is steamed by what he sees as unnecessary concerns and delays from the school district in the face of a proposal that he believes is an answer to Madison’s deep and disturbing achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts. He’s also furious that Thursday’s hastily scheduled board meetings coincide with a fundraiser for Madison Prep that has been planned since June.

In an email to school board members Wednesday afternoon that was released to the news media, Caire writes: “For an issue of such great importance and implications as Madison Prep, I want you to know that the Urban League of Greater Madison does not agree or support your moving forward with the closed meeting without our view being presented, and holding a ‘public meeting’ on Madison Prep on such short notice.”

Late Wednesday, when I spoke to Caire via phone and asked whether he might consider putting off the Madison Prep proposal for a year, he responded with an emphatic no.

“Understand that whether we get this planning grant or not, there will absolutely be a proposal before the Madison School Board in November for schools that address the unanswered needs of our children in this school district by next year. They can give final approval or withhold it, but they will have to answer to the community.”

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