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Madison School Board

A Madison School Board meeting in session at the Doyle Administration Building.

A local Montessori school that wants to become part of the Madison School District through a public charter process will learn next week whether its preliminary proposal will move forward to a more rigorous review stage.

School Board members informally discussed the proposal from Isthmus Montessori Academy at a work session Monday but took no action. The board is scheduled to vote Sept. 26 on whether to explore the idea in more depth or end the conversation. The school made a similar pitch to the district in 2014 that did not go forward.

District administrators say the current proposal has merit but that budget concerns are the primary stumbling block.

The private school, opened in 2012, is seeking to become the district’s first public Montessori school. The term refers to a child-centered educational approach, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, that includes multi-age groupings, customized learning plans, uninterrupted blocks of work time, guided choice of work activity, and specially designed learning materials.

The nonprofit school is at 1402 Pankratz St., near the intersection of Aberg and Packers avenues on Madison’s North Side.

It operates both as a private school for grades 3K-9 and as a licensed child care facility that offers full-time, year-round schooling for children ages 2 months through 5 years.

It currently enrolls 75 children ages 2 months to 15 years old, according to Melissa Droessler and Carrie Marlette, the school’s founders and leaders.

They project a first-year enrollment as a charter school in 2017-18 of 223 in grades 3K-9.

Initially, the school would be an “instrumentality” of the district, meaning a public charter school in which the School Board holds the governance responsibility and employs the staff. Ultimately, Droessler said the school wants to be folded into the district as a regular neighborhood school. That has been the school’s goal since opening, she said.

The district’s charter school application process gets progressively more rigorous as it goes on. This proposal is in the early stages.

The district’s charter school review committee evaluated the initial proposal in 11 areas and found it met preliminary expectations in 10 of them. However, it fell short in its five-year budget plan, primarily because it plans to begin expanding into additional high school grades in Year 3. District administrators estimate a deficit in Year 3 of $632,183.

“This budget does not show a reasonable balanced budget in Year 3 and thereafter,” the review committee wrote.

The district based its budget figures on the assumption that half of the students at the charter school would be coming new into the district, while the other half would be internal transfers.

If the board decides to continue the discussion, the review committee would want to see the financial outlook strengthened, said Kelly Ruppel, chief of staff and a member of the review committee.

Another budget concern is transportation costs, she said, and the review committee also would need more information on how the school would support English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Overall, though, Ruppel called the proposal “a strong model that has a number of strengths.”

The school’s proposal says it could serve some of Madison’s hardest-struggling students. Studies have shown that Montessori classrooms are “effective tools in addressing challenges such as achievement, behavior and opportunity gaps,” according to the proposal.

There are seven Madison-area Montessori schools, all private, the proposal says. A public Montessori school would receive state funding and be tuition-free, which would open the educational approach to “families and communities that have historically been excluded by being priced out.” That is “exactly the type of social justice innovation” the district should support through school charters, the proposal says.

Board member Mary Burke said she is “very much in favor of moving (the proposal) forward,” but she said she will have major concerns about how the proposal would affect taxpayers and other district schools, and how the charter school would ensure that its student body reflects the overall makeup of the district.

Board member Ed Hughes said the district will need to “dig deeply into the financials,” adding the proposal is one the board “can’t even consider if the referendum doesn’t pass.”

The district will seek voter approval Nov. 8 to permanently exceed state-imposed revenue limits by $26 million a year into perpetuity. The amount initially would be phased in.

While a public Montessori school would be unique in Madison, there are 10 such schools that are part of Milwaukee Public Schools, said Droessler, who previously taught at one of them, Craig Montessori School.

If the board votes to keep the process going, Droessler and Marlette would be given time to submit a more-detailed proposal. The board likely would make a binding decision in January or early February.

Hanging over the discussion Monday was the fact that entities interested in becoming public charter schools in Madison now have another option beyond the Madison School District.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature last year created the Office of Educational Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin System.

The office has the ability to bypass local school boards and authorize independent charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee. After Monday’s meeting, Droessler said her priority is to be “an agent of change” within the school district. “We remain hopeful that can happen,” she said.

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