Champaign school board votes to deny charter-school proposal

Champaign school board votes to deny charter-school proposal

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CHAMPAIGN — In just under five minutes, the application for North Champaign Academy charter school hit its final stop Wednesday when the Unit 4 school board voted to deny the proposal.

Citing state law that requires school boards to deny "weak or inadequate" charter-school applications, the board voted 6-1 against the proposal, heeding a recommendation from district officials made public two days earlier.

Bruce Brown cast the supporting vote.

The school, which backers proposed as a way to help low-income and low-achieving students in the district — in particular, students of color — didn't win board member Gianina Baker's vote, but she spoke Wednesday in favor of the issues proponents raised.

"I want to urge groups like NCA to continue pursuing other ideas further," she said. "These are questions that I will continue to wrestle with to ensure excellence, equity and a right to quality education for all students."

The district outlined its reasons for denial in a 22-page resolution made public Wednesday. Included were issues ranging from budget inconsistencies — such as grant money that is no longer available — to missing documentation that would have clarified which people and entities would run the school.

These inconsistencies were first highlighted during a tense April 9 meeting where school board members leveled 116 questions at NCA leaders Craig Walker, Lekevie Johnson and Nathaniel Banks, who requested more time to resolve the issues. In a compromise, the district allowed NCA to submit written answers to the questions that would guide the board's decision.

Some answers were provided, Unit 4 said. Others were not.

Among the issues left unanswered or unresolved:

— On the application, NCA was pitched as a five-year proposal — with an "effective date" of May 1, 2018, and the term running through July 1, 2023. That should have been accompanied by a five-year budget plan, Unit 4 Chief Financial and Legal Officer Tom Lockman told The News-Gazette. But the budget submitted only covered one year.

— NCA's budget included a line that called for $550,000 in revenue from the state, which district officials said was overly optimistic. That total, they said in the resolution, would be "the maximum that any one school could receive in a given year under the terms of the Charter School Program — Quality School Options grant."

— Fees are routinely waived for low-income families at current district schools. However, officials noted that NCA's plan called for a $50-per-student fee, totaling $5,000 in revenue.

— A budget item for "Office and Administrative Furniture" for six staff members was $35,000. Yet furniture for the 128 students projected to be enrolled in August was budgeted at $34,000.

— District officials also said it was unclear what the supporting nonprofit Life Line Inc. — which was listed several times in the application as Lifelines — was and how it was qualified to be involved with the school. A spokeswoman with the Illinois Attorney General's office told The News-Gazette that the entity "Life Line Champaign" was no longer listed in "good standing" as a nonprofit after failing to submit proper tax documentation.

— The district noted that state law requires applications to include whether any members involved with the school's governing body are the subjects of civil or criminal investigations.

Here, it claims, the application could be in violation, given what the district reported finding on — a broker background checking website run by the non-government Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

In its resolution, Unit 4 wrote: "A search on ... (a) brokercheck website reveals there is an active SEC investigation ... involving Mr. Craig Walker. To the extent that ... (the) brokercheck feature is accurate in reporting that the SEC investigation is still active, it should have been disclosed in the application."

Walker said Unit 4's assertion is toothless.

"I have no comment," Walker said in a text message to The News-Gazette following Wednesday night's meeting. "The investigation is over a year old, and there is no action pending or taken.

"I will note when Unit 4 hired Wells Fargo as their bond underwriter, The News-Gazette didn't print anything about their SEC investigations, housing discrimination settlements or their huge settlement for ripping off customers."

As far as next steps go, the only NCA leader who attended Wednesday's meeting said the work on behalf of low-income, low-achieving students is far from over.

"There is too much at stake for the work to discontinue," Banks said. "I call on all community members to join us in laying a foundation for the success of our children.

"This issue will continue to be revisited until our children receive what they need."

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