Pigbag — Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag (click to listen and watch).
Update: Yesterday evening the Board was provided with a number of new documents related to IMA. Among these is a different (or clarified) plan for 3K and 4K which renders moot much (or all) of the section below on Tuition.
I will probably be posting on these — especially the attendance area transportation issues — within the next week.
Monday July 31, 2017, The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will consider and vote on a contact for an Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School (IMACS). This will be the third time the Board has voted on a version of this proposal. The previous two times the Board and the Administration agreed that the proposal did not meet the requirements of the MMSD Charter School policy (related concerns about state statutes were also expressed by some Board Members). Each time, a majority of the Board voted to advance the proposal in order to provide opportunities to address the shortcomings (I voted no each time). Among the questions before the Board on July 31 is whether this has been accomplished; whether a sow’s ear has been transformed into a silk purse. I think it is still a sow’s ear.
In this post I detail how I reached that conclusion by looking at three big areas: charging tuition to place students in public school classrooms; a staffing plan that does not meet Association Montessori International standards (and perhaps violates state Administrative Rules; and most importantly, will not serve students well), and a budget that is not sustainable. These overlap with, but are not identical to the areas where the Administration and the Board previously concluded that the proposal did not meet expectations. It should also be noted that it is my understanding, and according to MMSD policy, all proposals must meet the terms of our policy and statutes. They are minimum requirements, and are not the basis for an automatic approval. There are other aspects of the proposal that I find wanting. But these are not the focus of this post. Before proceeding, some background is in order.
Where We Are, and How We Got Here
The first time the Board voted on IMACS was on September 26, 2016 (minutes here, Initial Proposal here, memo here, reviewers’ rubric here, budget key factors here, video here; related September 19, 2016 Operations Work Group minutes here, video here). Contrary to the Administrative recommendation, by a 5-2 vote (Anna Moffit and I voted no) the Board requested that IMA develop a “Detailed Proposal” to be submitted by November 1, 2016. According to the MMSD policy, the detailed proposal is to be analyzed by a (staff) Charter Application Review Committee, and forwarded to the Board, along with a recommendation, for a January vote. Many of the areas of concern identified in September — finances, staffing, attendance area, transportation, inclusion of 3K and secondary students, services for students with special needs, services for English Language Learners, enrollment… — remained areas of concern in January, and — for me — those concerns have yet to be satisfied.
IMA was given two opportunities on the detailed proposal, an initial version due at the deadline set by policy, and a revised or final version due three weeks later. There is nothing in the MMSD Policy either allowing for two detailed proposal submissions, nor explicitly disallowing. But this seems to be contrary to the intent of the policy (“Detailed Proposals must be filed in the Office of the Secretary to the BOARD by 3:00 pm on the due date set forth in Section II.A, above. No exceptions shall be made to the timeline. Late submissions will be returned unopened to the applicant”). Memos on IMA refer and link to a “revised charter school process,” and that document does include an opportunity to revise, but it has not been approved by the Board.
A version was submitted on November 1 (at the time, my requests to district staff and IMA for a copy of this version were refused; it was only provided to the Board after I made an open records request). This version was found to not meet expectations in 9 categories: Vision, Mission Goals; Values and Instructional Theory; Student Body/Demographics; Academic Achievement Data and Analysis; Student Access to Opportunities; Curriculum; Instructional Design; Financial Operations; and Facility Plan (rubric here, letter here). The subsequent version is the one the Board considered and voted on in January.
Confusingly, the subsequent and “final” version of the proposal also bears the date “November 1, 2017.” This proposal also did not meet the established criteria ( (memo here, rubric here, rubric including both the November 1 and the “final” version here). In 5 of the areas the reviewer found the changes made to be sufficient, in the areas of Student Body/Demographics, Academic Achievement Data and Analysis, Instructional Design, and Financial Operations, the rating remained “Fails to Meet Expectations.” Based on this, the Administration memo from Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham stated that she “cannot recommend that the Board of Education approve the IMA application for school year 2017/18.” However, the memo continued:
This is the what a majority of the Board chose to do (see below, I was the lone no vote). It should be noted that as with a second detailed proposal, the MMSD policy neither explicitly allows nor disallows contingent or delayed approvals, and this action took us into uncharted territory outside of our policy. Because of this, it is essential to look closely at all the documents and records, and what actions the Board has taken so far.
There were two votes related to IMA on January 30, 2017. Here is the wording for first (from the minutes):
[A]pprove(d) the proposal for the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School and that the District enter into a contract, consistent with applicable Board policy and state law, to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School as an instrumentality charter school for a period of five (5) years from July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2023. Such approval shall be contingent on the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School supplementing their current proposal to address the following areas of concern by no later than May 31,2017:● Student Body and Demographics● School Data● Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction● Financial Operations
and the second:
It was moved by Ed Hughes and seconded by James Howard that, consistent with BOE Policy 10,000, the Board of Education approve the following actions:1) upon the successful satisfaction of all outstanding contingencies, theDistrict will notify the State Superintendent of Public Instruction of itsintention to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter Schoolas an instrumentality charter school on or before March 1, 2018;2) by no later than July 1, 2017, the Board will approve a contract withIsthmus Montessori Academy Charter School to operate the charterschool for a five-year period beginning with the 2018-2019 schoolyear;3) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy CharterSchool to minimize expenditure impacts on the District’ budget and tomaximize revenue-generating opportunities including grants, stateaids, and other sources resulting from the implementation and operationof the charter school; and4) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy CharterSchool to assist the school with its planning and preparations in orderto ensure the successful implementation and operation of the schoolconsistent with the terms of the charter (contract).
At some point in the discussion, I (informally) proposed inserting a step in the process to allow the Board to review the staff determination on whether the contingencies had been met, and then based on this review decide whether to go forward with the contract negotiations (or not). This received no apparent support, so I did not make a motion to amend, and I did vote against the second motion (which passed 6-1).
Part of the reason I floated this proposal was because the nature of the identified failures to meet expectations and the standards used were (and are) lacking in detail. The Board and the public had been provided with only minimal information related to the staff analysis of the proposal (this is something I think we need to address in the looming policy revision). In addition to the memo and rubric linked above, a three-page “Financial Analysis” and a one-page (financial) “Key Factors” document were distributed. All total this comes to nine pages of analysis for a 121 page proposal (and given that the financials and rubric have much white space, that is a generous count).
This is a crucial issue. If the contingencies aren’t clear, then it is extremely difficult to determine if they have been met Since the Board vote only identified general areas, I don’t have any easy answer, but would suggest reviewing the relevant documents, and meetings to get a sense of what the concerns were. In addition to the materials linked above, I would add the minutes from the January 23, 2017 Operations Work Group, the memo from that meeting, as well as the January 23 and 30th videos. State statutes (especially Chapter 118), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Principles and Standards (which state law requires the Board to “adhere” to), are also relevant.
The supplemental materials submitted in response to the contingencies are a Special Education addition, an ELL addition, a revised Budget, a (confusing) Enrollment Model, and a (achievement) Data Update. I will cover some of these materials below, but in sum the changes in relation to Special Education and English Language Learners mostly concern schedules and professional development; the revised budget and enrollment model call for a slightly smaller school, lower (lead) teacher/student ratios, higher special education teacher ratios (and lower special education assistant ratios), designates Bilingual Resource Teacher and Specialist allocations (these were folded into other categories in the January version), a slightly smaller school, and a 5 year budget shortfall that increases from $58,681.36 to $516,157.01; the Data Update does little but relabel unrealistic “Goals” as “Aspirations.”
The Administrative review of these documents concluded that the contingencies and expectations had been met. I disagree (and will explain some of that disagreement below); you can draw your own conclusions.
As stated at the top, on July 31, 2017 the Board will vote on a (revised) contract. That’s where we are. Now to dig into three areas where I believe large problems remain: Tuition, Staffing and Finances.
Charging Tuition to Attend an MMSD School?
Much of this section is about legal issues, which are significant and complicated; some of it is about financial issues, which are also significant; but for me the most significant issue is one of principle, and that is whether we want to be a district that creates a situation that requires some students to pay tuition in order to be in a MMSD classroom. I don’t.
The last two iterations of the IMA proposal have referenced 3K students paying tuition; the budget in the recent submissions includes a “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teacher %)” of $53,901.33 in the first year (it increases slightly each year). Discussions have also included references to 4K students paying partial tuition, but at this point it isn’t clear what ,if any, plans there are for that.
Since state law and MMSD policy are clear that “A charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition, except as otherwise provided in s. 121.83(4)” (WI Statutes 118.40); and “A charter school shall not: …Charge tuition” (MMSD Policy 10000), IMA has proposed that the private school (IMA Inc) charge the tuition, and — in the latest version — turn some (but it doesn’t appear all) of that tuition over to MMSD via the “Reimbursement payment” referenced above.
There is much wrong with this arrangement; some that is legal, some of that financial, and some based on principle.
The MMSD Charter Policy only allows for “Instrumentality” charters, which means — among other things — that “the school board shall employ all personnel for the charter school.” The classrooms that 3K and 4K students would attend, are the same classrooms 5K students would attend, taught by MMSD employees. The supervision of these employees, and the other supports for these students would be provided by MMSD employees. These classrooms would be sublet by IMACS and MMSD (see the contract), from IMA Inc. (Almost) all the liability for these students would be MMSD’s (there may be a little that is IMACS), so far there has been no indication that IMA Inc. would take on liabilities, but we don’t — yet — have a contract with the organization (for this and other reasons — see below — I have requested that we review a draft contract with IMA Inc prior to voting on the IMACS contract). In every way, these would be MMSD classrooms and MMSD students.
With that in mind, how can a private school charge these students tuition? I don’t think they legally can, but since it isn’t 100% clear, it is worth looking at statutes and precedents.
First, there appears to be a distinction between 3K and 4K (there are also some differences for children with disabilities that I am not going to cover, except to say that I can’t find any circumstance where tuition may be charged for educational services provided to “Residents 3 to 20 years old” in these instances. Chapter 121.77 states: “Every elementary school and high school shall be free to all pupils who reside in the school district.” 115.01 says “Where reference is made to “elementary grades”, the reference includes kindergarten, where applicable. Where reference is made to “kindergarten”, the reference includes both 4−year−old and 5−year−old kindergarten, except as otherwise specifically provided.” Reading these together, I don’t think MMSD can collect or authorize the collection of tuition for 4K students in our classrooms.
(13) PREKINDERGARTEN CLASSES. Establish and maintain classes for children less than 4 years of age under such regulations as it prescribes. The school board may accept and receive federal funds for such purpose and expend such funds in conformity with the purposes and requirements thereof. The school board may charge a reasonable fee for attendance at such classes but may waive the fee or any portion thereof to any person who is unable to make payment.
and 120.14 has a similar provision for “Child Care Programs.” Districts may charge tuition for 3K or child care.
But the IMA proposal does not have MMSD charging tuition, it has IMA Inc. charging tuition for MMSD classrooms and services. Nothing I can find gives the district the power to make that arrangement. I don’t think the power exists, and I don’t think the power should exist.
This is probably as good a place as any to note that in my research I found one instance of a charter school in Wisconsin charging tuition for 3K. The school is Downtown Montessori a 2r (non-intrumentality) charter authorized by the City of Milwaukee (you can look at the contract here ,and tuition page here). This appears to be in violation of the following provision “charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition” provision quoted above, but as 2r charter Downtown Montessori is also a Local Education Agency (MMSD would be the LEA for IMACS), and this may allow them to take advantage of the provision that empowers the school district to charge tuition for 3K. It may not. It certainly doesn’t serve as a precedent for allowing IMA Inc. to charge tuition for district classrooms.
Some people have referenced community based 4K services as a precedent for what IMA is proposing, but there are key differences. In those arrangements, MMSD staff come into private preschools and provide educational services for a few hours a day (I think, but I may be wrong). These services are free to all. Some, but not all, students who receive these services also pay tuition to the private provider for the remainder of the day, and other services. This is different from the IMA model in two huge ways. First, the private schools provide services and coverage, in the IMA model all of this is being done by MMSD. Second, students may access the MMSD portion of the day without paying for the other portions.
I don’t think what is being proposed is legal, but for the purposes of looking at the finances of the arrangements, I am going to set that aside.
IMA proposes setting the “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teachers)” at 2/3 of the cost of a teacher, or $53,901.33 in the first year. The thinking appears to be that 1/3 of the students in the 3K to 5K classrooms will be 3K students, there will be two of these classrooms, therefore 2/3. This leaves out all the other costs associated with the school, or more accurately shifts them to other funding sources, by far the largest being local property taxes. This is a bad deal for MMSD.
It may be even worse, if IMA intends to charge what they are charging now. Current 3K tuition at IMA is $995/month. 20 students at $995/month, for 9 months = $179,100, which is $125,198.67 more than IMA wants to pay MMSD for these students. $125,198.67 for processing 20 applications, cashing some checks, and pointing the students toward an MMSD classroom (IMA promises an annual, additional “Financial support payment from the parent organization IMA Inc.” to MMSD, but these do not appear to be linked to 3K or 4K and only in year one do these payments approach the projected tuition collection surplus). Nice deal for IMA; not so nice for MMSD. If they intend to charge partial tuition for 4K students, it gets even worse.
Tuition related concerns about accessibility and equity have also been raised. IMA currently participates in the state Wisconsin Shares program, which provides some tuition assistance, based on qualifications and needs. Although this does improve equitable access, eligibility is limited, payments may be partial depending on circumstances, and undocumented students are not eligible. More importantly, I don’t think the arrangement IMA has proposed — collecting tuition to send children to public school classrooms — would allow them to qualify for the subsidies. The program has extensive requirements for providers (and here). Among other things, this process requires submissions on the qualifications of the teachers. IMA Inc. will not be employing any 3K or 4K teachers (they will be MMSD employees), so I don’t see how they can claim MMSD employees as their teachers (and MMSD classrooms as their classrooms) in order to receive state funding.
Leaving everything else aside, I don’t think we should create a new school unless we believe that it will be successful for our students. Staffing is a key part of this. The changes in the staffing plan since January are relatively extensive, but still — in my opinion — insufficient to create that confidence.
The above referenced Association Montessori International standards require classes of 28-35 children, with one “AMI trained teacher,” and one “Non-teaching assistant” for each class. The proposal voted on in January had for year one, a total of 1 “Educational Assistant, incl BRS,” and 0.8 Special Education Assistant (like Special Education Teachers, and Bilingual Resource Teachers, BRS, and SEAs have specific responsibilities and they can not be used as general “assistants”). At best, this staffing plan was also short 6 assistants.
The new plan is in some ways an improvement. For year one, there are now 6 classrooms, 190 students (ranging from 30 to 36 in each classroom), and 6 classroom teachers. In addition, there are 1 BRT, 0.5 BRS, 1.5 Special Education Teachers, and 1.2 Special Education Assistants. There are no “Non-teaching assistants”in the plan. The standards call for 6. The estimated cost to add these would be about $300,000 in the first year, and over $1.5 million over five years.
There are no Arts, Music, World Language, Computer, or Physical Education teachers, nor a budget for these. All of these are problematic, and the lack of certified physical education staff appears to be contrary to Wisconsin Administrative rules.
Before going forward, look at the chart — especially columns 3,4, and 6 — and take a minute or two to reflect on how bad (almost all of) our schools — Madison and Milwaukee — are doing with disadvantaged students. We need to do so much better.
…[C]harter contracts that plainly:• Establish the performance standards under which schools will be evaluated, using objective and verifiable measures of student achievement as the primary measure of school quality;• Define clear, measurable, and attainable academic, financial, and organizational performance standards and targets that the school must meet as a condition of renewal, including but not limited to state and federal measures;
The proposed contract does not do this. Instead it lists many possible measures, and leaves target setting to the SIP process.
Without clear targets and standards, the renewal process gets very, very messy. I think the best way around this is to have cohort based growth goals (but not the MAP growth measures as used by MMSD, those essentially label students who are not falling behind their peers who started at the same RIT score as meeting targets, which in relation to our students who are struggling amounts to a pat on the back for continuing to be well behind).
Non-resident, open enrolled students create a net loss for MMSD. A balanced budget for IMA would have public funding equal to the open enrollment payment amount. The IMA projected budget averages about $525/student/year more than this. So MMSD would subsidize each student who open enrolls in MMSD by that amount. There is no increase in the revenue limit for these students.
Before closing on the budget and finances, I want to say a few more things about the donations and fundraising. I called the fundraising projections unrealistic based on tax documents filed by IMA, that show they have never raised over $10,549 a year, and are now promising $60,000 or more annually. IMA has secured one pledge of $100,000 (see here, page 90), via an individual who opposed building apartments in Shorewood because “This project increases the voting rolls by 20 percent with people who have different values – I’m not saying bad values – but different values from what we have here.”
Which brings up the issue of “Leverage Philanthropy,” whereby individuals and groups with money use (relatively) small donations to leverage (relatively) large amounts of public money for ends that are not aligned with and may be opposed to the public good. It is not unheard of for charter schools to receive support from those who desire the end of school districts. I am confident that the founders of IMA are sincere in their stated desire to expand accessibility to what they believe is a beneficial system of education, and to do so within a public school context. I am not so sure about their potential donors, and am generally uncomfortable when people use the promise of funding to sway the decisions of governmental bodies.
The last thing on fundraising concerns the contract. As currently drafted the contract only allows a good cause termination if payment and fundraising promises are not met two consecutive years. I think it should be one year, or at very least two years without the consecutive. The draft contract also reduces district support the following year when these promises are not met. I don’t like that because it punishes the students. I already think the staffing is much to small, any further reduction would only decrease the likelihood of students being served well.
In making its decision, the BOARD shall, at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the SUPERINTENDENT, whether or not the requirements of BOARD Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the DISTRICT. [from MMSD Policy 1000]