Ed Hughes has a problem.
Like most of his fellow school board members and practically everyone else in Madison, he was bowled over by Urban League president Kaleem Caire's vision for Madison Prep, a charter school that would aggressively tackle the school district's entrenched minority achievement gap.
"The longer day, the instructional focus, and the 'no excuses' approach appealed to me," Hughes says.
But as he looked into the details, Hughes became more and more concerned about the cost of the school and "whether there is a good match between the problem we are trying to address and the solution that's being proposed."
Expressing those doubts in his blog has turned the soft-spoken Hughes into a heretic.
Caire is a superstar who has galvanized the community to get behind his charter school. At school board hearings, only a handful of speakers express any reservations about the idea, while an overwhelming number speak passionately about the need to break the school-to-prison pipeline, and about Madison's moral obligation to do something for the kids who are not being served.
Hughes listens respectfully. But, he says, "for Madison Prep to be the answer, we'd need to know that the students it was serving would otherwise fall through the cracks."
With only 60 seats open to the entering class in the all-boys academy (and the same number at a planned school for girls), a lottery will favor parents who are savvy and motivated to grab the available seats, he points out - and their kids might not be the ones who have the greatest need.
But Hughes' big problem with the Urban League's draft proposal, submitted to the district last February, is cost. The total cost to the school district of $27 million over five years is just too much, he says.
Among the line items that stick out are the salary and signing bonus for the school president and CEO of $110,000 and a separate head of school: $102,000. Hughes compares that to the recently opened Badger Rock charter school, which has kept costs low by having no administrators and employing a lead teacher to serve as principal. Badger Rock's total cost to the district in five years is just under $6 million.
As an "instrumentality" charter set up within the district, Badger Rock also draws its students from the neighborhood. That saves money, because if enough students who would otherwise go to Sennett Middle School enroll, Sennett can cut a teacher. Madison Prep plans to enroll kids from all over the city, so the district is unlikely to offset its cost by cutting teachers or reducing classes.
Hughes raises questions about a management fee to the Urban League of $75 per student. "By the fifth year we'd be paying about half a million to the Urban League for - well, I don't know for what."
Since Madison Prep is an independent, "non-instrumentality" charter, the school district has no control over how it's run. "Once we enter into the contract, it's hands-off," Hughes says. "We really are subcontracting out our educational mission to the Urban League," Hughes says.
No matter what happens with Madison Prep, the Madison schools are likely to make cuts next year - to English language learner programs, school social workers, reading specialists and other programs. In that budget climate, cost is a big deal.
By 2015, when Madison Prep adds a ninth grade, Hughes points out, "the roughly 24,000 students who would not be attending Madison Prep would sustain $1.5 million in budget cuts in order to subsidize the 480 students who would be attending the charter school."
But to Kaleem Caire, Hughes' questions are exasperating. "I wish I could get this kind of rise out of the community over how much we spend on prisons!" he says.
The $27 million figure, Caire says, is misleading. "That was a draft," he emphasizes.
The real cost of the school will be released on Oct. 3, at a public hearing, where the Urban League will present an updated proposal. Caire declines to discuss it yet. But, he says, "It will be very different."
The Oct. 3 hearing comes at a crucial moment. The Madison Prep plan must be approved in November.
"This has to happen," Caire says. "I am just desperate for people to see that black and Latino kids can be high achievers."
You can't help but catch his excitement when he describes kids who have been neglected, surrounded by adult role models with high expectations for them. Caire is confident an aggressive marketing campaign will bring in low-income families.
He issues a challenge: "The district had no plan before I got here. I came with a plan - a tight plan. Now what?"
Hughes agrees. "If the board ultimately decides that Madison Prep is too expensive, or that we can't endorse it for other reasons, we need to have some sort of alternative proposal we think will be a better way to address the issue, whether it's a school within a school or a charter proposal that's part of our school system and not so expensive."
To Hughes, that makes more sense.
"Some of the ideas in the Madison Prep proposal may be great ideas, others not so much. We could try them in a more limited way, see if it works, and then expand."
One way or another, Caire's challenge is going to have an effect.
The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education's Public Hearing on Madison Prep will be held on Monday, Oct. 3, at 6 pm in the McDaniels Auditorium of the Doyle Administration Building, 545 W. Dayton St.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.