DuPage County Board waives rent for special needs school

A nonprofit school for students with severe disabilities has encountered financial difficulty because of low enrollment and is getting a reprieve from DuPage County.

Joseph Academy, which opened December 2012 in Wheaton, serves students who struggle with emotional, behavioral and learning challenges.

Executive Director Mike Schack said the school hoped to have 18 to 20 students referred to its program through their school districts, but only have eight.

The school owed nearly $12,000 in rent to its landlord, DuPage County, but the payments were waived at the county board's Tuesday meeting, at which Joseph was also granted permission to operate rent-free through the end of September.

The academy, which has locations in Des Plaines, Hometown and Melrose Park, is housed in the former DuPage County Juvenile Detention Facility.

Schack said recent financial troubles have meant fewer school districts can to afford to send students in need of specialized help to the school.

"Some districts have suffered more financially than others," he said. "But state reimbursements are late and less than they used to be. Districts are seeing lower tax revenues. Everyone is seeing a lot of different things, so it's been hard for them to place children in specialized service education."

The debt forgiveness showed the board's desire to have Joseph in the county, said board member Jim Healy, who added it is a benefit to every school district, parent and child in the area.

"Prior to this, we were sending our kids out of this county, some of them having to travel long distances," he said. "This is something that we absolutely need to try to keep in the county, and this is the perfect location for it."

Healy said the board should encourage school districts to participate in the program.

Board member Robert Larsen clarified that the goal was not to offer a long-term, rent-free situation, but to allow the school to grow and eventually pay rent on its own.

The board will revisit the issue in September to decide whether to extend or alter the lease agreement, which expires in July 2016.

Board Chairman Dan Cronin said the program was a good use for the space formerly occupied by the detention center.

"If Joseph Academy succeeds in their mission, we won't need youth homes," he said.