Backers of the Madison Preparatory Academy are now recommending establishing the proposed single-sex public charter school as what's known as a "non-instrumentality" of the district.
Ultimately, that means the school's staff would be non-union, and the Urban League-backed charter school would have an unprecedented degree of autonomy in its operations, free from district oversight.
With the recommendation, made at a meeting Wednesday, Madison Prep supporters, the school district and the local School Board wade into uncharted waters.
Because of the change, school officials will need to revise their administrative analysis of the charter school proposal in advance of a School Board vote on whether to approve the Madison Prep plan.
But despite a potential legal challenge over the non-union staffing, and risks associated with turning over public funding to a school that would operate with very little district administrative oversight, School Board President James Howard says he's inclined to give the Madison Prep proposal a green light. He will be looking to convince at least three other board members to take the plunge, as well.
"I'm prepared to go out on a limb on this," he says. "This Madison Prep proposal is a pilot, an experiment, and we need to find a solution to the problems of the kids we are not reaching."
"Does that mean hiring more minority teachers? A longer school day? A longer school year? I don't think anybody knows for sure but we've got to try some things. Let's not let the (union) contract stand in the way of innovation," he adds.
The immediate impact of the recommendation will be to push back into December a final School Board vote to approve or deny the Madison Prep proposal. Instead of voting Nov. 28 as originally scheduled, the School Board will wait for a revised analysis by the school district administration of the Madison Prep business plan.
That analysis, according to district Superintendent Dan Nerad, will need to focus primarily on two elements. One will be the district's legal risks if the board chooses to authorize a non-union school. The other is establishing adequate oversight of the expenditure of public funds for a school that operates very independently from the rest of the district.
I spoke with Nerad following the Madison Prep board meeting late Wednesday.
"Our obligation is to point out to the board the risk factors and the responsibilities the district has in the operation of this school if it is approved. No matter what, the district remains responsible to the public," Nerad says.
The decision by the Madison Prep board to recommend the school as a non-instrumentality comes after months of negotiations and dozens of meetings.
Earlier in the fall it appeared that issues regarding the district's collective bargaining agreement with its teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc. and the prep school proposal had been largely resolved, with Kaleem Caire, Urban League CEO, and John Matthews, executive director of MTI., agreeing that they had, in principal, found common ground.
The devil remained in the details, and the dollar figures.
The change in union status means the Madison Prep budget would remain at about $17.6 million over five years as projected in a business plan submitted to the district at the end of October.
A district analysis of the proposal released last weekend showed that the charter school would actually cost about $10 million more than that to operate, largely because school planners had not accounted for the full implications of the district's collective bargaining agreement on staffing costs.
On Thursday, I contacted Matthews for a union perspective on the latest twist in the Madison Prep story, and the request the Urban League will be making to establish the school as a non-instrumentality of the district.
Matthews says he questions how school board members would be able to justify taking funding away from students in the district and providing it for a school operated by the Urban League with no accountablity to the board, and, ultimately, tax payers.
"The only place the school board can get funds is by taking them from other areas of the district's budget -- or to raise taxes next year specifically to fund the Urban League's proposal. I think school board members will have a big conscience problem, and a lot of hot taxpayers, if they provide funds to a source which is not accountable to them as board members," Matthews wrote in an email response to my request for a reaction.