As vote nears on Montessori charter school, questions remain on cost, staffing
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MADISON SCHOOL DISTRICT | MONTESSORI CHARTER SCHOOL VOTE

As vote nears on Montessori charter school, questions remain on cost, staffing

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The Madison School Board is poised to vote Monday on whether to create its first public Montessori charter school, a decision that appears to hinge on the level of risk board members are willing to accept.

The district’s charter review committee says it cannot recommend approval of the proposal from Isthmus Montessori Academy because the plan falls short in key areas. But the board could decide the shortcomings are fixable and not major enough to derail the effort.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham has raised another possibility. If board members want to go forward with the proposal, she is recommending that implementation be delayed until the 2018-19 school year. That would provide more time to address remaining issues.

Melissa Droessler, a co-founder of the Montessori school, said delaying implementation by a year would be disappointing but not a deal-breaker, as long as the district kept negotiating in good faith.

Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA), 1402 Pankratz St., is a private, nonprofit school founded in 2012 that wants to become part of the district. It is attempting to do that through the district’s charter application process, which was revised last year to be more rigorous.

Under the new process, if an applicant receives a “fails to meet expectations” rating in even one of 15 areas, the district’s charter review committee will not recommend it. The IMA proposal fails to meet the district’s expectations in four areas, including in its approach to budgeting, staffing and measuring academic growth.

However, School Board President James Howard questioned the rubric used by the district to evaluate applications, saying it “seems to be subjective” and that perhaps the threshold is too high.

“With so few ‘does not meets,’ it seems we have something to work with,” he said. “You’re really targeting very small areas.”

If successful in its bid, the academy would become what’s called an “instrumentality” of the district. It would retain considerable autonomy but receive state education funding and be tuition-free. The School Board would have ultimate governance responsibility and employ the school staff.

The academy’s supporters say the Montessori method, which includes multi-age classroom groupings and customized learning plans, would help the district close achievement gaps and expand options for students. They note there has been virtually no public opposition, and that the charter review committee found many strengths in the proposal.

Cost a big issue

The potential cost to the district is a complicated issue due to multiple unknowns, like whether the school will draw students not currently enrolled in the district — a financial plus — or simply siphon ones away from other district schools.

Every charter school applicant is asked by the district to build a proposed budget based on the per-student amount of state funding the district would receive for the public charter school. For the 2017-18 school year, the district estimates the amount will be $6,739.

If a charter school wants to spend more per student, it needs to find a way to do that on its own, such as through fundraising. The gap can be significant. The Madison School District spends about $12,700 per student.

IMA is proposing a first-year enrollment of 223 students in grades 3K through 9. However, only students in grades 5K through 9 receive full state funding. (4K students receive partial state funding.)

The academy’s five-year budget proposal basically is balanced three of the five years. It runs a minor deficit in Year 3 ($6,845) and a larger one in Year 4 ($61,455).

However, the charter review committee said many of the assumptions IMA made in crafting its budget, such as student enrollment projections and transportation costs, lack concrete support to back them up.

Also, the heavy reliance on fundraising without enough specific plans or backup strategies concerned the committee.

Droessler said she believes the school is solid financially. This coming school year, a donor has committed to giving $100,000, of which $60,000 would be applied to the first year budget of $1.37 million, she said. Also the first year, another $120,000 would come from surplus from a licensed child care center operated by Isthmus Montessori Academy Inc., the parent organization.

Droessler said she and the other drafters did the best they could in developing the budget and were told by district officials to use as a guide the budgets of the district’s three other charter schools: Badger Rock Middle School, Nuestro Mundo Community School and Wright Middle School.

She noted that in all three cases, the district fills in the gap between the amount the schools receive from per-pupil state aid and their actual costs to operate.

Indeed, those gaps are large. The district estimates it will spend $10,685 per student this school year at Nuestro Mundo, $13,011 per student at Wright and $13,374 at Badger Rock. Any outside funding, such as from fundraising, is above and beyond those numbers, the district said.

Kelly Ruppel, district chief of staff and a member of the charter review committee, said the three schools were chartered under a different policy, at a time when the district did not require balanced budgets or specify a per-pupil amount. Financial sustainability is now required of charter applicants, she said.

IMA supporters also note the district stands to lose students and funding if it rejects the proposal and IMA were to pursue becoming an independent charter school unaffiliated with the district.

Staffing questions

Board member Anna Moffit repeated her concerns this week that the proposed school may be underestimating the number of staff members it would need to serve special education students and English Language Learners. The charter review committee flagged the same issue.

“The staffing just doesn’t match the number of students they are enrolling if they are truly going to serve the students they’re proposing,” Moffit said.

Board member TJ Mertz said the levels for support staff proposed by IMA are “frighteningly below” the levels of public Montessori schools elsewhere in the country.

IMA representatives say the Montessori methodology allows them to employ fewer staff members than a traditional public school while still meeting students’ needs and following all laws.

Board member Mary Burke said the different staffing model is one reason she’s interested in the proposal.

“While (IMA) doesn’t look like our other schools in terms of staffing, I think that’s something that could be beneficial, while trusting them that they are educators and that they are going to meet students’ needs,” Burke said.

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