Case involving Comprehensive Community Solutions and District 205 could set state precedent for charter school criteria
Poor financial condition is no excuse for a public school district to deny creation of a taxpayer-supported charter school. This is the primary argument made by attorneys for Comprehensive Community Solutions Inc. (CCS) and YouthBuild-Rockford in Illinois Supreme Court documents filed in April against the Rockford School District and Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).
Supreme Court judges heard oral arguments in the case May 18 in Springfield, and are expected to issue a decision concerning the funding dispute by late summer or fall.
Kerry Knodle, executive director of YouthBuild-Rockford and CCS, proposed the charter school in July 2001, which would teach about 75 students at their facility at 917 S. Main St. Rockford school officials rejected Knodles proposal at an Aug. 28, 2001, meeting, and the case has been working its way through the court system since ISBE officials supported the districts decision in May 2002.
Knodle, who attended the May 18 oral arguments, said the judges asked questions concerning what would happen if the issue were remanded back to the ISBE.
Knodles YouthBuild-Rockford was founded in 1995, and helps people between the ages of 16-24 learn job skills while earning a GED or high school diploma. Participants build or refurbish housing for homeless and low-income people in their community.
David J. Chizewer, a Chicago-based attorney for CCS, said in an April reply brief that Rockford School District officials view the charter school as a dispensable luxury item rather than an educational expense, which contradicts the plain language and purpose of the Charter School Law.
However, Mary Patricia Kerns, assistant attorney general, argued in a March brief for the school district and ISBE that the Supreme Court should affirm the ISBEs ruling and lower court decision that supported the school districts claim they were not economically sound to fund a charter school. Kerns also argued the charter school was not in the best interests of the students it is designed to serve.
Two wins, two losses, two ties
Even though CCS has lost two court decisions up to this time, their proposal has won support from two groups of officials at the state and local levels. CCS also lost two tie votes at state and local levels, which brings their charter school proposal to 2-2-2.
The decision by the Illinois Supreme Court will add to one of the columns in that record, and likely determine whether poor financial condition of a school district can be used as a factor to deny creation of a charter school. The decision will also likely clarify the extent of the ISBEs authority to issue final rulings.
CCSs first victory occurred in mid-August 2001 when the Rockford School Boards Charter School Advisory Committee accepted the CCS proposal. However, the charter school proposal failed to gain approval when the school board voted a 3-3 tie at their Aug. 28, 2001, meeting.
Chizewer complained in a brief that school board members offered no reason for denial of the charter school application, at the Aug. 28, 2001, meeting.
However, Kerns countered that school board members who voted against the proposal, including current WNTA radio talk show host Stephanie Caltagerone, cited six reasons for their rejection in a Sept. 4, 2001, letter to the ISBE. The letter stated:
YouthBuild targeted students already served by Roosevelt Alternative High School.
According to the Illinois School Code, adults that have dropped out of public school cannot be considered at-risk students. Charter school legislation targets students that are enrolled in public schools.
YouthBuilds proposal would be an incentive for students to drop out to receive the weekly monetary stipend, rather than enrolling in the adult education program at Roosevelt Alternative High School.
The proposal lacked specifics about the curriculum and how it would be implemented.
No indication about the programs success rate for obtaining GEDs or diplomas.
At a minimal level of funding by the school district, school officials projected a $30,717 per pupil loss, which they argued would not be responsible given the districts dire financial situation.
Chizewer wants the Supreme Court to order the ISBE to compel Rockford School officials to accept CCSs July 2001 proposal, or grant the charter with the condition that an agreement be negotiated with the school district.
Chizewer also argued [t]he ISBE and the Rockford School District are so mired in the traditional approach to public education that it has clouded their view of the plain language, the policies and the power behind Charter School Law. The defendants refuse to acknowledge that the Charter School Law treads on the traditional autonomy that is enjoyed by a local board. …
[T]he ISBE has misinterpreted the criteria for establishing a charter school, this Court should use its judicial review power to reverse the ISBEs decision.
ISBE officials decided May 16, 2002, in a 4-4 vote to not reverse the Rockford School Boards decision to deny YouthBuild-Rockford a charter by arguing the funds required to operate the charter school would create an additional deficit for the district.
The state boards decision went against State Superintendent of Education Respicio F. Vazquezs recommendation at the May 16, 2002, ISBE meeting. At the meeting, Vazquez commented to board members that the ISBE appeal panel found in a Feb. 8, 2002, report that the denial of the charter school application was without merit because the proposal was in compliance with the law and was in the best interests of students.
Vazquez recommended ISBE members follow the appeal panels lead to overturn the school districts decision.
The appeal panel found YouthBuild would offer courses not offered by the school district, curriculum-related concerns were adequately addressed, and the negative financial impact of the charter school accounted for only 0.001 to 0.003 percent of the school districts $188 million budget for the 2002 fiscal year, which translates into $188,000 to $564,000.
The ISBE appeal panel also stated that such an expense incurred by a school district was inescapable under charter school law.
However, ISBE members rejected the appeal panels findings and failed to overturn the school boards decision in the 4-4 tie vote. ISBE members Connie Rogers, Richard Sandsmark, Janet Steiner and Beverly Turkal voted to deny the charter.
The ISBE consists of nine members who are appointed by the Governor with consent of the Illinois Senate. Board members serve four-year terms, with membership limited to two consecutive terms.
At time of publication, it was not known which member of the ISBE was absent for the charter school vote.
According to a Supreme Court brief, Rogers said he voted against the proposal because she did not want to put students in jeopardy due to her belief that most charter schools fail because of a lack of financial support.
Turkal commented that she voted against the proposal because of the districts poor financial condition, and belief the district already had existing programs to meet students needs.
Specifically, Rockford School officials argued to the ISBE that if CCSs proposal were approved, the district would have to cut an additional $1,370,363 from existing programs for students. They also said any funding level below 100 percent would leave the proposed charter school financially impaired, and funding at that level would not be economically feasible for the district.
Even if lowered to 75 percent of the requested funding, the district argued that during the last two years of the schools five-year charter, the district would incur a $475,000 deficit.
Chizewer argued such monetary concerns would not be the charter schools problem, but the districts for not budgeting properly.
Knodle added that the districts argument that this [ch
arter school] isnt in our budget is erroneous. The reason we applied in the first place was the obvious need for this program… The $330,000 in legal fees spent so far could have paid for the charter school…
This isnt taking money out of the hands of students. In fact, its the opposite. Were putting money back into the taxpayers hands. To back his claim, Knodle cited a December 2004 study conducted by the Center for Labor Market Studies in Boston that found for every dollar that was invested in dropout programs, taxpayers save $15 in social service and criminal justice system costs.
The study was prepared for the Chicago Alternative Schools Network.
However, Rockford School Board President Nancy Kalchbrenner told the Chicago Tribune May 19: We were worried about the charter school taking money from the district, and we felt that if we had extra money, wed rather expand our own [dropout] program.
CCS argued before the ISBE that denial of the charter school application based on school district economics violated the Charter Schools Law.
The Illinois Appellate Court in the 14th District disagreed with that argument when they wrote: economic interests are very much a concern of a charter school.
While YouthBuild-Rockford has yet to receive money from the Rockford School District, it has received support from other Rockford agencies for its other programs.
According to CCSs Web site, the non-profit corporation receives public funding for various programs from: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Labor, City of Rockford, Rockford Housing Authority, Rock River Training Corporation and Illinois Department of Human Services.
CCS also receives support from private donors.
To view the Illinois Appellate Court 4th Districts decision concerning this case on the Web, visit: http://www.state.il.us/court/Opinions/AppellateCourt/2004/4thDist
From the June 1-7, 2005, issue