Litchfield Board Begins Consolidation Study Deliberation

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"We're here to have a discussion as to what you thought of the information," Superintendent Dr. Gregg Fuerstenau told members of the Litchfield School Board, introducing the agenda item on the school district consolidation study at their Thursday, Aug. 15, meeting.

Results of the study–which recommended consolidation of the Litchfield, Hillsboro, and possibly Panhandle school districts–were released at a meeting on Monday, Aug. 12, at Lincoln Land Community College in Litchfield.

"I thought it was good information to have," Dr. Fuerstenau said, specifically referencing the pieces in the study referring to vocational curriculum, transportation, finances, long-term forecasts and the potential location of a new high school.

Board member Gregg Hires said the recommended location of a new high school–either in Hillsboro or somewhere between Litchfield and Hillsboro–was a sticking point for him, and board President Julie Abel said that while she was impressed with the potential benefits of a consolidated school district, "what's sticking in my head is that big $61 million cost" of a potential new high school.

Board member Valerie Cain said the study did a good job of pointing out advantages to a new consolidated district, but failed to point out disadvantages–finances, loss of local control, community pride, and the academic advantages of smaller schools.  She cited a study that secondary schools should have no more than 500 students.  

The study determined a single, new high school in a consolidated district would have 900-1000 students.

Dr. Robert Mulch, who served in a leadership role on the Montgomery County School Study Commission, said that in order to meet all the requirements before ultimately placing a consolidation before voters on the spring 2020 ballot, school districts would need to make a decision by the end of September.

"But that's not hard and fast," Dr. Mulch cautioned, suggesting Litchfield meet with the other school boards in the recommended consolidation.  "Take the time you need to make a good decision."

"As a school board member, I'd like to hear public input," board member Mike Fleming said.

The superintendent said he would schedule a "work session" to specifically discuss the study and the district's potential for participation.

Board members voted to spend $720,768 on eight new school buses–a price of $90,096 each.

"This will bring our fleet completely up to date," the superintendent said, "then we can set up a rotation cycle so you don't have to buy eight at a time again."

Each of the new buses will have air conditioning, back-up cameras, as well as three cameras inside and several more on the outside, "so all bus routes will have a new bus on them," Abel pointed out.

Financing at three percent over four years will be arranged with First National Bank of Litchfield, and payments will be made from the Transportation and Working Cash funds.

Before the meeting, the board hosted a hearing to request a waiver on the statutory five percent maximum increase on administrative costs.  Litchfield needs the waiver because it breached the cap by paying two superintendent salaries last year.

"It's disappointing that we have to do it, but we don't have any choice," Fleming said when the time came for a board decision.  The motion passed 6-0-1; Fleming voted present.

Before next month's meeting, the board will begin with a budget hearing at 5:45 p.m. on Thursday Sept. 19.  Until then, the fiscal year 2020 budget, which predicts a $226,000 deficit in the five operating funds, will be on display at the unit office.

The board also set another special meeting, which the superintendent calls a "community listening session," for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, at the Litchfield Public Library.  Topics for community discussion will be shared, and board members will be there to listen; there will be no decisions made.

"We've been in school two whole days," board student advisor Ellen Fleming said to begin her report.  After highlighting upcoming events for board members, Fleming said students had lots of good things to say about the new lunch vendor, OPAA Food Management of Chesterfield, MO.

Kudos for OPAA were a common theme throughout the meeting, echoed by principals throughout the district and the superintendent.

"I've had a lot of cafeteria food in my career," Dr. Fuerstenau said, "but yesterday I had the best gravy on roast pork that I've ever had." 

The fresh fruit and salad were frequently mentioned positives.

The board made an adjustment to the school calendar to add a teachers institute day on Thursday, Oct. 10, before a previously scheduled teachers institute day on Friday, Oct. 11, and the Columbus Day holiday on Monday, Oct. 14.

The change was suggested by director of curriculum Jennifer Thompson for two-day "Capture Kids Hearts" training.  The schedule change will not affect anything else on the school calendar, including the end of the school year.

Before a 17-minute closed session the board approved a personnel report that accepted the resignation of Renae Krieg as elementary special ed teacher, approved a leave for Colt special ed teacher Shadow Collins, hired Josey Bartello as elementary special ed teacher, hired Billy Wyatt as paid assistant football coach, and approved assistant volunteer coaches David Seabaugh in football, Deanna Boston and Tony Marten in golf, and Brittany Ronco in the high school cheer program.

The board also hired Dr. David Lett as district Careers in Technical Education coordinator, a position the superintendent later described as part-time for 100 days.  Dr. Lett, former Pana superintendent and currently an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield and member of the Illinois State Board of Education, will be establishing a framework that will put together a career center that develops a vocational program based on job opportunities in the region.  The goal is to get students on a career track as they progress through the Litchfield district, and may include partnerships with the business community and student internships.

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