"Our group believes that a strong school system is an integral part of making Montgomery County an attractive place to live and raise a family," said Dr. Bob Mulch of the Montgomery County School Study Commission. "The first step toward completing that vision is create one school district from either two or three of the school districts in the study."
Dr. Mulch spoke to a crowd of about 100 at Lincoln Land Community College in Litchfield on Monday evening, Aug. 12, as the Midwest School Consultants presented their report from a feasibility study including the Hillsboro, Panhandle and Litchfield School districts. The project was started over a year ago, and the Nokomis School District declined to participate in a four to three vote by members of their school board.
Representatives from the Hillsboro, Panhandle and Litchfield school districts were present at the meeting, as well as superintendents for all three school districts and the superintendent of the Nokomis School District and other local leaders from each community.
"We started this process over a year ago, and we feel it is in the best interest for our communities to build a new high school between Hillsboro and Litchfield," said Dr. Mulch. "Schooling for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade would remain in their current communities."
Among the benefits of a new, consolidated school district would be replacement of outdated school facilities, including Hillsboro High School and elementary school buildings in Litchfield, reduction in administrative costs, more academic opportunities for students, more dual credit classes, expanded vocational training, stable and expanded athletic programs, increased potential for higher test scores and improved school report cards and improved economic development opportunities in the county.
"Any decision regarding the future of our schools will be up to the local school boards and ultimately the citizens of our county," said Dr. Mulch. "We urge the school boards to move this project forward for a public vote."
Dr. Mulch said the idea for a consolidated school district was first brought up at a presentation of the Litchfield Economic Development Committee and later the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation.
The study, which cost $18,000, was provided at no charge to any of the school districts. The Montgomery County Board paid $10,000 of the total cost, and the rest was paid by donations from local businesses and individuals.
After several months of studying data presented by the three school districts, Dr. Bill Phillips, Dr. Scott Day and Dr. Leonard Bogle, presented their findings at this meeting. With the help of CTI, the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation streamed the meeting live on their Facebook page for residents who were unable to attend. Copies of both the complete study and the Power Point presentation of the meeting are now available with all the school districts as well.
In opening the 90-minute presentation, Dr. Phillips said he and his associates have done roughly 60 consolidation studies, and all have long careers in the field of education.
"The purpose of a study like this is to provide a district with information that can help determine options for its students," Dr. Phillips said.
Over the past few months, they have looked at curriculum, finances, staff needs, transportation issues and facilities for all three school districts participating in the study. They looked at two scenarios, including one with all three school districts and one with Hillsboro and Litchfield.
"We provide a neutral viewpoint on the information provided," said Dr. Phillips.
The first presenter was Dr. Scott Day who focused on the curriculum program in each of the districts. He said that if a combined district were formed, there was a good possibility it would provide more educational opportunities for students.
Dr. Day added that all three districts have strong family and consumer science programs and ag programs, which could be enhanced through consolidation. He said that it would also be possible to consider an industrial technology center for increased vocational education, and that it could be opened up to other school districts in the area to provide added revenue.
For all grades, Dr. Day said that a consolidated district would have to decide on a unified curriculum and textbooks, as well as a grading scale, and encouraged teacher input on all facets.
The evening's second speaker was Dr. Leonard Bogle, who focused on both enrollment and transportation.
The study's figures include a five-year projection, which shows a steady decline of students. Five-year projections for Litchfield showed the only positive figure, an increase of one student over current enrollment numbers.
"You see a pretty steady drop all across the state in enrollment," Dr. Day said. "That's nothing unusual. And of course it can change. That's why we don't look at projections beyond five years."
He said that a consolidated district with all three districts in the study would be around 1,000 high school students, while a high school with Hillsboro and Litchfield would be around 900 students. Currently, none of the high school facilities in the study can accommodate that many students, which means a new high school would have to be built somewhere in the new district.
Dr. Day also addressed increased transportation costs in bringing students to a new high school either in Hillsboro or somewhere between. He said they looked at Hillsboro because a new building could be built on its existing campus, whereas there isn't as much room to expand around Litchfield High School. In addition, if there was a consolidation, Litchfield High School could be used to house elementary school students, saving costs on fixing up some of those facilities.
Dr. Day used the Butler T as an example for a new site, but suggested it is not that feasible at this time as there is no infrastructure (like water and sewer lines) there.
To transport Panhandle and Litchfield students to Hillsboro would cost $43,000 a year, while transporting only Litchfield students would cost around $21,000. To transport students to a neutral site in Butler would cost $53,000 for all three districts and $35,000 for Litchfield and Hillsboro.
In his final report, Dr. Day discussed facilities in all three districts.
"Why do I tell you all this?" Dr. Day said. "This study is kind of like a marriage and it gives you a picture of what the other side is bringing to the table."
He talked about facilities at each of the districts, as well as health life safety issues and repairs at each.
If any of the districts were to combine, there would have to be a new high school facility built, and the study estimates a new building could cost as much as $61 million. Although there could be savings in moving existing furniture and technology.
The final presenter of the evening was Dr. Phillips, who focused on the finances of each district. Dr. Phillips pointed out that the tax rate for each of the districts is fairly similar (5.32 in Hillsboro, 4.91 in Litchfield and 5.21 in Panhandle). Each also spends between $9,500 and $10,500 per student.
Dr. Phillips said a combined district with all three would net an EAV (equalized assessed value) of $380 million, and he estimates the tax rate would not change much, and be about 5.26 for all three or 5.27 if Hillsboro and Litchfield combined.
The new tax rate would be decided by a committee of ten citizens formed if the school boards decided to pursue consolidation.
Dr. Phillips also reported that teacher tenure is guaranteed in a new school district, meaning all certified teachers would bring their years of experience with them. New contracts would have to be negotiated, and Dr. Phillips said on the average, Litchfield teachers made the most money of the three.
He added a new district could see some staff reductions, possibly in teachers at the high school level, and most certainly in administration. It would ultimately be up to the new school board to decide based on class sizes and classes offered. Dr. Phillips said that grade schools and special education are very often not affected by consolidation.
Before closing, he talked about the incentives available from the state for consolidation, adding that the state does pay these incentives. If all three districts combined, they would be offered $3.4 million over four years, and if Hillsboro and Litchfield combined, they would be offered $2.1 million over four years. Dr. Phillips said there is also the possibility of getting some funding to build a new high school, but expected that would not exceed $4 million.
In conclusion, the consultants felt that a consolidation of the Hillsboro and Litchfield school districts had the most potential for success, and would include a new name, a new school board and a new tax rate.
If local school boards decided to pursue consolidation, they would petition the Regional Office of Education, and Superintendent Julie Wollerman would host a hearing to gather information. That hearing would be open to the public, and any citizen would be allowed to voice a concern.
Following that hearing, the petition would go to the state superintendent to approve or deny the consolidation effort. If approved, the Regional Office of Education would set a date for an election, and voters in each district would have the chance to vote for or against consolidation. To pass, 51 percent of voters in each affected district must approve the measure, and if the measure fails in any district, it fails overall.
In addition, Dr. Phillips said that the consolidation election can also include election of seven new school board members (elected at large) and could include a bond measure for the new school. Those items may also be done during a separate election.
He added that in rare cases, where a school board does not choose to pursue consolidation, a citizens petition of 200 signatures (it must include 50 from each district) may also be presented. Dr. Phillips said that does not happen very often, but did happen in the North Mac School District. The Girard School Board did not approve consolidation with Virden and it was done through a citizens' petition.
Following the presentation, the three consultants answered questions submitted from the audience.
One question was asked about why Nokomis chose not to participate and if they could be included later. Dr. Mulch said he didn't know why they opted not to participate in the study, but if there were a consolidated district in the future, and Nokomis was interested, he felt the new district would consider that request.
Dr. Bogel answered questions about the facility and transportation costs, while Dr. Day answered questions about curriculum and increased opportunities.
One question posed the possibility of less participation chances for students in a larger school, for example, playing time in basketball. Dr. Day said that a larger school would have increased competition for spots, but would also create a stronger program and more real-world experience.
Another question focused on creating specialty high schools, like in St. Louis, where one high school focuses on vocational trades and another focuses on music. He said that's possible in larger communities, but would be unlikely in this area.
One question asked about town's losing their identity in losing a high school building.
"That's an adult concern," he said. "Adults remember things about their own high school experiences, but kids will have no problem assimilating to a new school and making their own memories."
Another question asked if school districts that have consolidated would do it again, and Dr. Phillips said the majority would absolutely do it again.
"It's an issue of getting over tradition," he said. "And making decisions that are best for the boys and girls you serve."
Dr. Phillips answered a question on the location of the new high school, which would be voted on by the new school board.
Another question asked how many of their studies had resulted in consolidation, and he said around 25 percent.
"Our job is to give you enough information so you can make informed decisions," Dr. Phillips said. "I challenge you to take this information and turn it into decisions that will be good for boys and girls in all your districts. Remember who you are deciding this for, and that's the future of the students."