The Madison School Board’s narrow rejection of a proposed five-year contract for a public Montessori charter school on Monday isn’t deterring supporters and may not represent the end of the process around the proposal.
Ali Muldrow, described in the proposed contract as one of the school’s seven founders, said Tuesday she isn’t giving up on the fight to see Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA), a private school since 2012 on Madison’s North Side, become a public school known as Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School (IMACS) for grades 4K-9.
“We’re absolutely going to keep trying,” said Muldrow, a former School Board candidate who lost to Kate Toews in the April election. Toews voted against the charter school contract in Monday’s 4-3 vote, along with Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz and fellow board newcomer Nicki Vander Meulen.
“There’s no way we’re going to give up on bringing Montessori to public schools, and if that means changing how we do it, then we will,” added Muldrow, a director of youth programming and inclusion for a Madison nonprofit whose two children, ages 2 and 7, attend IMA.
In January, the School Board voted 6-1 to turn IMA into a public charter school, the first in the district, starting in the 2018-19 school year. But the approval was contingent on contract negotiations to address key areas of concern that board members had about aspects of IMA’s proposal.
Superintendent Jen Cheatham on Tuesday said that means district staff must come up with another contract proposal with IMA that board members can accept — unless the board votes to rescind its January vote granting charter approval, effectively ending the current process.
“They’ll have to make a decision on whether or not to do that,” Cheatham said. “That is the next logical step.”
The main sticking points for board members who voted no on Monday revolved around student demographics, staffing and waivers or departures from district policy in the proposed charter contract.
Opponents believe IMA’s location and certain state rules mean the school’s student body, to be chosen largely through a random lottery, will lack diversity. That’s a potential problem especially because the Montessori method — a unique education approach built around customized learning plans and self-directed learning — has been touted primarily as a way to help the district narrow achievement gaps between white and minority students.
Board members including Moffit and Vander Meulen also contend the charter school as proposed wouldn’t have sufficient support staff to serve all students, especially those with special needs. And Mertz has argued, among other things, that the proposed contract contains too many unsupportable variations from district rules or policies, such as letting IMA offer 3K kindergarten for a fee in the same classrooms with public school students.
“I am not a staunch opponent of charter schools,” Moffit said after the vote Monday, noting she supported a renewal of the district’s Badger Rock Charter School, as well as the IMA proposal on a conditional basis in January.
“However, I do believe they must be adequately staffed and committed to providing an appropriate education for all students that are served in our district,” said Moffit, who works at Wisconsin Family Ties, a statewide, not-for-profit organization that advocates for special needs children and their families. “In the disability community we have a saying, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”
Gary Bennett, as director of the state’s new Office of Educational Opportunity, has the power to bypass local school boards in Madison and Milwaukee to authorize independent charter schools in those two cities.
But Bennett said his office couldn’t consider the IMA proposal, unless the IMA team brought it to his office and the school board was no longer considering it. And he didn’t believe the school board was finished with it.
Muldrow said the IMA team members would now work on changing the minds of board members who voted no — and given the closeness of the vote, all they need is one.
Toews said it was possible for her mind to be changed, but she didn’t hold out much hope.
“We’re all trying to understand what the next steps are,” she said. “I’m open to a variety of options to bring Montessori into the district. But I want to make sure the demographics of the school are reflective of our district overall, and I want to be able to do it in a wise way from a cost and location perspective.”