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Oswego School Board votes down STEM school

Alderman Edward Bugg who represents Aurora’s 9th Ward spoke support STEM partnership school AurorUniversity before Oswego School Board members voted

Alderman Edward Bugg, who represents Aurora’s 9th Ward, spoke in support of the STEM partnership school at Aurora University before Oswego School Board members voted down an agreement Monday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 13, 2014 6:35AM

OSWEGO — Oswego 308 School Board members voted against an agreement with three local districts and Aurora University Monday that would have sent 50 Oswego students to a partnership school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Board members voted 6-0 against the agreement, citing concerns over the school’s costs, relatively small size and details yet to be worked out. They suggested the district could create its own unique STEM program or school that would benefit more students.

Board Vice President Alison Swanson abstained from the vote, citing her position as a high school teacher at one of the other districts and her past work with Aurora University.

“Should we have STEM in 308? Absolutely,” said School Board member Brent Lightfoot. “Is the Aurora University STEM school the place for us to partner with first? I don’t think so.”

Future of school

The John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School is being constructed on Aurora University’s campus and was planned to serve 200 third- to eighth-grade students from West Aurora, East Aurora, Indian Prairie 204 and Oswego 308.

The $12 million building is scheduled to open in August in time for next school year and was expected to cost about $2.3 million annually to operate.

Aurora University issued a joint statement Tuesday on behalf of the university and three remaining districts that said the school was still on track to open this summer.

“As we enter this final phase of preparation for the school to open, we are disappointed to learn of this development,” the statement said. “Like our elected officials and many community and corporate partners, we remain committed to this first-in-the-nation concept and its potential to advance learning, teaching and the economic vitality of the Fox Valley region.”

The state law that governs the STEM school says that four or more school districts with boundaries that touch can jointly operate it. If fewer school districts are to participate, the law needs to be revised.

A bill was filed earlier this month in the Illinois House by state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) that would allow the STEM school to operate with two or more districts. The bill is working its way through the Rules Committee.

Board concerns

Oswego School Board members first expressed concern about the size and cost of the partnership school in mid-January.

On Monday, Lightfoot said sending 50 students represented an “infinitesimal” proportion of district students. According to state data, Oswego had about 17,200 students enrolled last school year.

Oswego should support programs that “try to raise and elevate standards for all kids,” especially as many junior and high school students are struggling to meet state math standards, Lightfoot said.

Board members Matt Bauman and Danielle Paul said not enough information was provided about how music, physical education, fine arts and extracurricular activities would work at the partnership school.

“There’s a bad feeling in the information that has not been provided and a timeline that was not given to us,” Bauman said.

Paul added that because two or more “top teachers” would have worked at the partnership school on loan for two to four years that more than 50 Oswego students would lose the benefit of the teachers’ expertise.

Board member Mike McDowell said he was leery of “hopping on the bandwagon” and being part of a new, untested school.

“I never like to buy the first model of anything,” he said. “I would like to see it work for a couple of years first.”

Superintendent Matthew Wendt said the district had the “responsibility to educate the whole child” and to keep funds within the governance of the district as Oswego’s enrollment is projected to grow by the hundreds each year.

“STEM is one curriculum, not the only curriculum,” he said. “We have financial pressures.”

Wendt and several board members said despite the “no” vote, they hoped they could continue to build on partnerships with Aurora University.

Support for school

Four speakers expressed their support for the STEM school during public comments, including an Aurora alderman and a representative who spoke on behalf of state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego).

Speakers invoked the founding of Aurora’s Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in 1985 as evidence the STEM school could work. At the time, they said, the school was untested and faced funding hurdles, but the selective public high school went on to become nationally recognized.

Alderman Edward Bugg, who represents Aurora’s 9th Ward, said Oswego 308 was not one of the original districts intended to participate in the partnership school, but Aurora officials wanted to open it up to be more inclusive.

He offered to ask the city of Aurora to pay for two additional crossing guards at Oswego, to offset additional costs of transporting students to the STEM school.

“Some people say education in Illinois is broken… but the STEM partnership school is an exception,” he said.

District parent Russell Pietrowiak said he wanted the STEM school to be an option for his elementary-age daughter, who he said is the only girl on her school’s robotics team.

“We are looking at an opportunity here that we should not be shortsighted on,” he said. “It’s important to do due diligence, but it’s also important at the end of the day to take a risk…There’s a lot of things that have financial downsides that we do all the time. Why should this one be singled out?”

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