Charter school in Peoria a matter of debate

DeWayne Bartels
Listening post: District 150 School Board president David Gorenz, left, and District 150 superintendent Ken Hinton listen to public comments about the possibility of a charter school in Peoria.

A charter school in Peoria is either an economic development tool or a union-busting tactic.

Those were the prevailing thoughts at a recent District 150 school board meeting depending on which vested interest had the floor.

The business community and representatives of the minority community were in favor of the new educational concept.

The school board approved moving forward June 1 on a math, science and technology school.

Teachers’ union representatives were not enthused.

Pro sentiments

At-large councilman Jim Montelongo, the CEO of an engineering firm, said he worked on the committee to create a charter school in Peoria because the need for skilled workers is so great.

Montelongo said, in his view, a charter school will be a tool of economic development.

“Cities all over the country are finding success with charter schools,” Montelongo said. “These schools seem to be reaching the students.”

Will Ball, the manager of Caterpillar’s social initiatives division, agreed with Montelongo.

“Exciting things are happening in Peoria,” Ball said. “To sustain growth we have work to do.”

Education, Ball said, is one of those areas in need of work.

“We need to ensure we have a diverse workforce skilled in math and technology,” he said.

Ball said graduates from the school, now planned as a fifth-eighth grade academy, will ensure Caterpillar has a “pipeline of future talent.”

Michael Bryant, CEO of Methodist Medical Center and chairman of the CEO Roundtable, said there is widespread support for a charter school.

“We see the need to truly elevate education,” Bryant said.

He said a charter school will provide choice for all students in the district.

McFarland Bragg, president of the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Development, said, he does not buy into arguments that minority students will be excluded from the school. He said, it appears, this school would provide opportunity to both the haves and have-nots.

“Give the charter school concept a good thorough investigation,” Bragg said.

Con sentiments

The pros may have outnumbered those with an attitude the charter school concept is a boondoggle, but the opponents were relentless.

Terry Knapp, a former District 150 teacher and former president of the Peoria Federation of Teachers, attacked the idea.

He turned to look at Bryant, just feet away from him, and said groups like the CEO Roundtable had, in the past pledged support to the school district.  

“None of these groups came up with anything,” Knapp said.

He said these groups supported the Edison Project and those schools, he said, have cherry-picked the students. Knapp said he has no doubt the charter school will do the same thing.

Knapp also attacked the idea that charter schools have looser rules concerning teaching credentials.

“You will find people teaching in that school who are friends of friends. It will be a good old boys club,” Knapp said. “This is a classic union-busting tactic. I can’t just walk into Mr. Bryant’s hospital and get a job as a certified nurses aide. I’d have to have training.”