It was a busy night for members of the Litchfield School Board who approved a preliminary tax levy and voted to move ahead with two building projects to update the district’s elementary school campuses.
All board members were present for the regular monthly meeting, held Tuesday evening, Nov. 17, at Sihler School. The meeting lasted just under three hours.
Typically, the board meets on the third Thursday of each month, but they always move their November meeting due to the annual school board conference in Chicago. This year’s conference was cancelled, but the board had already set their meeting date for November.
Board members spent over an hour discussing the next step in the building project for elementary school students. The project includes renovating JD Colt School for kindergarten and first grade students with an addition for pre-K students, and building a new building on State Street for second through fifth grade students.
Kevin Meyer of FGM Architects and Cory Noder of Poettker Construction made the presentation to the board. Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau said he was asking the board for a thumbs up on the footprint for the two buildings in order to continue development on the project.
Following a special board meeting in September, Meyer said he and his team met with Litchfield teachers and administrators to learn their wants and needs for the new buildings. They also surveyed Colt School and the land on State Street.
“A lot of stuff has been happening behind the scenes,” Meyer told the board.
The building on State Street will have an L shape, with a commons/lunchroom and a gym in the middle and a wing on each side. One wing will house second and third grade students and the other fourth and fifth grade students. Each wing will have its own playgrounds.
Board member Gregg Hires asked if the classrooms would be a bigger size, and Meyer said many of the classrooms Litchfield has now are different sizes, so the average size of the new classroom will be bigger than the average size of the classrooms they have now. In addition, they will have five classrooms for each grade level, although they only use four at this time, allowing for future growth. Board member Mark Bloome asked how many students would be able to use each classroom, and Meyer estimated 25, although that number did not necessarily reflect COVID measures.
The second and third grade classrooms will feature student storage cubbies in each classroom, while the fourth and fifth grade wing will feature lockers in the hallways.
Meyer said the commons area in the center will feature administrative offices and will double as a cafeteria, although food will still be prepared at the middle school/high school complex. The gym, which was designed to be a physical education-only gym, will also double as a storm shelter, which is required for all new construction.
Board member Mike Fleming asked about the roofline, and Meyer said they are looking at a low sloping roof. Fleming also asked about the exterior, and Meyer said they are looking at a hard steel frame and possibly brick.
Bloome said he was impressed the bus traffic would drop students off on one side of the building while parent drop-off would be on the other. Fleming asked if the parking lot was too far from the school, and Dr. Fuerstenau said the parking would largely be for faculty, who would have arrived before the students. There will be about 50 spots.
Fleming also asked about concerns about the playground being near the road, and Meyer said they have planned for a fence around the structures.
Fleming and board member Gregg Hires had concerns about the gym size, which under the current plan would not be a competitive gym. Hires also wondered about a space with a stage for concerts.
“As a board making decisions for younger kids, I thought it would be more grandiose,” Hires said. “It’s a little underwhelming in my opinion.”
Fleming said he thought they should take some time to think about the project before approving anything.
“This is big,” Fleming said. “We are making decisions for the next 50 years. I think we can take a pause and make sure we got it right. It’s a long-term investment.”
Noder of Poettker Construction said they can run numbers on how much it would cost to make the gym space bigger and present those figures to the board at their December meeting. The board is working on a $12 million budget for the project, using alternative revenue bonds, which are mostly funded from the county’s one-percent sales tax.
Board President Julie Abel reminded the board they were only approving the footprint Tuesday night so the designers could move forward. The board could still talk about the gym size at a later date.
In moving on to discuss the site at Colt, Meyer said they will renovate the existing structure and add a pre-K section. The pre-K development will serve as the storm shelter in this building. It will also have a commons area between the two, which will serve meals to students, and a gym.
For the Colt project, they are using health life safety bonds, which does limit some of the things they can do.
Fleming asked about classrooms for music and art, both of which are done in student classrooms. He also asked about the possibility of sinks in classrooms at lower grade levels. Meyer said that was also on the top of teachers’ lists, but that the plumbing at that site wouldn’t necessarily meet that need.
Board members unanimously approved the footprint for both buildings. Fleming suggested a public open house in the near future so the community could see the plans up close.
Dr. Fuerstenau presented the board with what he called a fairly neutral tax levy. He presented the board with a five-year history of the district’s levy, noting that last year, they reduced the levy, asking less in the tort and Social Security funds.
They project the equalized assessed value will go up 2 percent, and the district set the tax rate at 4.66979 percent, just up from last year’s, which was 4.65 percent. Since it’s under 5 percent, it does not require a Truth in Taxation hearing.
Hires asked if the new construction projects would have an impact on the tax levy, and Dr. Fuerstenau said it would not. They are using alternative revenue bonds and health life safety bonds to fund the projects.
Also under new business, the board tabled a motion for renewal of a comprehensive roof management contract with Tremco Service Corporation.
They also unanimously approved the district’s winter sports schedule and action plan. However, just before Athletic Director Mark Elvers was to make his presentation, the IHSA released a statement pausing all winter sports until after the first of the year.
Although Litchfield students were allowed to begin practicing basketball on Monday, those practices will end on Thursday due to new state mitigations.
“We’re hopeful to get started after the first of the year,” Elvers said. “We will try our best to get the students back on the courts and fields if we can do so safely.”
Fleming asked about the financial situation of the IHSA and if the district had any say in the way they operate. Litchfield High School Principal Doug Hoster said most of that information is available on the IHSA website, in terms of financials.
Elvers added that if the district wanted to compete in any postseason play, they had to be a member school of the IHSA.
He said he will meet with other South Central Conference athletic directors on Wednesday, followed by an IHSA board of directors meeting on Thursday and another athletic directors meeting on Friday.
Dr. Fuerstenau said he contacted the district’s insurance company, who provided in writing that the district will be able to play as long as they follow IHSA guidelines.
“I appreciate all the work you guys are doing,” Hires said. “And I want to say how sorry we are to the juniors and the seniors that they are missing such big milestones. They have been wearing their masks on the court and doing a great job of everything asked of them.”
Under the consent agenda, the board voted to pay the monthly bills for November, totalling $484,521. That includes $298,151 from the education fund, $51,697 from operations and maintenance, $31,712 from transportation, $102,000 from capital projects and $961 from tort.
Dr. Fuerstenau said that tracks for this time of year, adding that the district does continue to receive its general state aid, although not always its categorical grants from the state.
In his treasurer’s report, Dr. Fuerstenau said the balance of all funds for the district is $9.84 million as of Oct. 30, with $7 million in operating funds and $624,569 in capital projects.
During the citizen’s agenda, Dr. Fuerstenau introduced Litchfield Police Chief Kenny Ryker to talk about the district’s new school resource officer. It was announced earlier in the week it would be Shane Grammer, who has already started working for the district. He is currently away at training for his new job.
“We started this project several years ago and we have the utmost gratitude for the support of the board and the administration,” said Chief Ryker. “It’s going to be an amazing thing for the community helping to build relationships between youth and law enforcement.”
Dr. Fuerstenau recognized current board members in honor of School Board Members Day on Nov. 15. Each received a certificate. Dr. Fuerstenau also noted that board members Hires, Abel and Valerie Cain join Ron Anglin in earning their master board member status.
In enrollment news, administrators in the district reported that more than 100 students have returned to in-person learning across all grade levels. Building administrators also reported that even though most parent-teacher conferences were done by phone, they were pleased by the turnout.
LHS Principal Doug Hoster reported his team is still working on what they will do about final exams.
Fleming asked Madison Park Principal Adam Favre how the district was meeting the educational needs of some of its youngest students with limits on contact and interaction. Favre said the staff had adjusted and students were getting more individualized instruction that ever before.
Dr. Fuerstenau presented the annual school report card to the board, although there was no state standardized testing in the spring, so there was no student data to report. All buildings received a commendable status, and Dr. Fuerstenau said a copy of the school report card is now available on the district’s website.
Curriculum Coordinator Jennifer Thompson said she has delivered 30 hot spots to families in need of internet access, but still has about 70 available if they know of families who need them. Anyone interested should contact their child’s school.
Before adjourning, Dr. Fuerstenau announced the district would take two remote days on Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 23-24 for deep cleaning, in hopes they would be able to finish the first semester in person after Thanksgiving break. He had high praise for staff and parents alike for working hard this first semester in the face of new challenges. Food service will be provided on Monday and Tuesday with pick-up at the middle school.
Board member David Belusko asked if the district was considering returning to in-person learning five days a week until 3 p.m. in the second semester. Dr. Fuerstenau said they were looking at it, but that continued remote learning made that tough because they still rely on teachers too.
“The new tier three mitigations do not affect schools,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “But what will affect schools is the availability of hospital beds.”
Hires said the community is ready for the district to return to in-person learning five days a week, asking if the district was still required to teach remote learners
“We have a small percentage of remote learners, and that effort needs to be made on the 80 percent of students in person,” Hires said.
Following about a half an hour in closed session, the board approved its monthly personnel report. They unanimously approved Robyn Engstrom as a school nurse and approved FMLA leave for third grade teacher Katie Hoerchler, beginning March 19.
The board will meet again on Thursday evening, Dec. 17, beginning at 6 p.m. at Sihler School.