School Superintendent Phil Ertl has been seeking a role for the Wauwatosa School District at Innovation Campus for months, but the School Board felt compelled this week to formalize his charge.
"It is hereby resolved that the School Board encourages the superintendent to explore a possible governance agreement for The University Lab School that would include the Wauwatosa School District," according to the resolution, which was unanimously approved. "This agreement shall provide meaningful educational opportunities for students of the Wauwatosa School District and preserve the financial stability of the district."
The University Lab School, part of the Forest Exploration Center, is hoping to find a home for itself in the Eschweiler buildings at the campus.
Board President Michael Meier said he had the resolution put on the agenda "to bring clarity and certainty" to Ertl's efforts.
Ertl has been in discussion with other parties involved at Innovation Campus since July, after the board formally objected to an application for city funding by The Mandel Group — which is set to build an apartment complex on the site — that appeared to help the FEC and its school.
The school, to be a charter school of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was seen by the district as a competitor for Tosa district students, and their funding.
"I've been trying to operate in many different ways in these discussions, trying to figure out where we're at," Ertl said.
He noted that the city, in its development agreement with Mandel, will include a clause requiring the FEC to enter into an operational agreement on terms acceptable to the school district.
No formal agreement between the district and the FEC has yet been formulated.
"My goal in this would be to sit down and try to come to some type of agreement where our students that have an interest in attending the school can attend the school, and there's no negative financial impact to the district," he said.
Such an agreement would set a precedent, he has said.
Money at stake
When the district loses a student who lives in Wauwatosa to a private or parochial school, it costs the district about $6,000 in state aid, and an additional several thousand dollars in levy authority.
The "governance" phrase in the board's resolution, "is an additional piece, and how the school is governed could be a model. I look at it and say maybe it's possible we could come up with some kind of agreement that could be replicated," Ertl said.
Ertl said he foresees more UWM charter schools in the five-county Milwaukee area, suggesting that other districts may at some point be in the situation Wauwatosa now finds itself in.
The state budget, approved in June, included a provision that allowed independent charter schools sponsored by UWM to operate in the five counties. Formerly, charter schools outside Milwaukee and Racine could be authorized only by school districts. Under that law, a district would count students in the charter schools as part of its enrollment and use district staff to run the schools.
Ertl said the school district needs to build a relationship with UWM.
"The Wauwatosa School District is going to be around. The UW-Milwaukee is going to be in Wauwatosa. I look at it and say we need to develop a stronger relationship, and continue to build that relationship," he said.
The relationship goes beyond the university's role as a sponsor of charter schools, extending possibly to student teachers, and ways the university could help with the district's science, technology, engineering and math programs, among other things, he said.
The Wauwatosa School District was approached by the University Lab School a year and a half ago as a possible sponsor. It even approved a federal planning grant for the school. But when the FEC sought to locate at the Eschweiler buildings, the district backed off.
School Board members suggested several changes to the resolution as written, including one by Mary Jo Randall, who wanted to ensure that Tosa students, under the agreement, could be provided educational opportunities "at no cost," which others saw as unnecessary. Meier pointed out that even if the FEC falls short of the funding it needs to occupy the Eschweiler buildings, it still likely will have a presence in the district and an agreement should extend to that scenario.
School Board member Anne Fee said she would vote for the resolution, but "found it hard to find evidence" that the University Lab School would be a benefit to the district.
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