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Isthmus Montessori Academy student in class

In this January file photo, Annie Melton, 7, talks with elementary assistant Rachel Murnane in a classroom in at Isthmus Montessori Academy, a private school on Madison's North Side. 

By a 4-3 vote, Madison School Board members on Monday rejected a proposed five-year contract that would have established the city’s first public Montessori charter school.

Continuing concerns over staffing, student demographics and budget issues helped sink the proposal from Isthmus Montessori Academy, despite many months of staff work on the contract.

The board’s two newest members, Kate Toews and Nicki Vander Meulen, joined with steadfast charter opponents Anna Moffit and T.J. Mertz to defeat the proposal. Voting “yes” were board president James Howard, Mary Burke and Dean Loumos. The proposal, which has been through several iterations since February 2014, also had the support of Superintendent Jen Cheatham’s administration.

If it had been approved, the contract would have converted Isthmus Montessori Academy — now operating as a private, tuition-based school on Madison’s North side for students in grades 3K to 9 — to what would be known as Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School, a public, tuition-free school for grades 4K through 9 by fall 2018.

The Montessori approach, which attracts both passionate supporters and determined opponents, was not itself the problem, board members who voted no on Monday said. Contract details and circumstances surrounding this particular Montessori school, they said, were the issue.

“This budget is being used to rewrite our policy,” Mertz said. “I don’t like being put in that position.”

Moffit said support staff numbers in the proposed contract were low even compared to most other Montessori schools — including several successful ones in Milwaukee — especially for special education students and English language learners. That means those students wouldn’t be adequately served, she said, or that extra costs would be created for the district to fix the understaffing.

But Cheatham urged the board not to see it as an us-vs-them proposition, noting the charter school and its students would be fully part of the district if the contract was approved. The district also should “honor and value” grass-roots proposals that come from the community, she said, especially one like this promising to help the district address its achievement gaps for students of color.

“Many of us see the hope and opportunity there, even if the impact is small,” she said. “We think it’s worth it.”

Burke noted the projected cost per student would be around $9,000, which would rank it on the low side for elementary schools in the district, and Howard made an impassioned plea to his fellow board members to approve the contract to explore whether doing things differently results in better outcomes for minority students.

“It’s all about access,” he said. “All the data around kids of color shows we have not gotten it right. Every one of us has a part of getting it wrong for students of colors.”

“We owe it to our community of color here in Madison to give this a shot, to learn from it,” Burke agreed.

But the other board members remained skeptical about the proposal, seeking more specificity in the academic standards the school would be held to, more traditional staffing numbers and fewer diversions from established district practices through a contract proposal.

“I can’t even believe this is before us,” Mertz said, speaking of a complicated arrangement in the proposed contract that would have let IMA continue to charge private tuition for kindergarten for 3-year-olds in the same classroom as young public students in the school.

IMA has operated as a private school since 2012, but founders Melissa Droessler and Carrie Marlette have long sought to restructure it as a public option. They have said they want to see the school wrapped into the district as a means to provide more access for low-income and minority students to the Montessori model. Messages left for Droessler and Marlette were not returned Monday.

The Montessori model emphasizes customized learning plans, self-directed learning, with two- to three-hour uninterrupted instruction blocks and multi-age classroom groupings to encourage students to learn from each other as well as from teachers and outside experts. Teachers in the school would have been required to have the state Department of Public Instruction’s special Montessori teaching license to work at the school under the contract.

IMA enrolled about 80 students as a private institution last school year, ages 2 months to 15 years old, at its leased building at 1402 Pankratz St. The proposed contract called for enrollment of 162 students in fall 2018, growing to 212 by the contract’s fifth year, while the school’s budget would rise from $1.48 million to $1.91 million, with a $30,788 projected deficit in 2022-23.

The board in January gave conditional approval to the bid from IMA, pending contract negotiations to address points of contention that remained. The board delayed approval of a five-year contract for the school three weeks ago because of continuing concerns over three areas: the charter’s proposed attendance area, proposed waivers to the district’s employee handbook and accountability provisions in the charter’s proposed three-year review.