Litchfield Moves Ahead With Building Project

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The Litchfield School District moved another step forward in the process of building a new second through fifth grade elementary school on State Street in downtown Litchfield.

As part of their regular monthly board meeting on Thursday evening, April 15, the board unanimously approved the site and floor plan presented by FCM Architects and Poettker Construction. Board member Gregg Hires was absent from the meeting, which was held at Sihler School.

Introducing Emily Spindler of FGM Architects and Corey Noder of Poettker Construction, Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau said the school district had a very productive meeting with city officials. He also reminded the board they were simply looking at a site and floor plan, and that interior design was still to come.

“What you’re looking at is how the facility will fit on the property and how traffic will flow,” Dr. Fuerstenau told the board.

Spindler, who serves as the lead architect on the project, told the board it’s been a long road, but the company is happy at the progress.

Initially, the district had hoped the city would vacate St. John Street to allow for the construction of a one-story school. However, the city decided against the street vacation, and the district opted for a two-story building.

Spindler told the board the main parking lot would be north of St. John Street for teachers and staff with a cross walk to the school. Visitor and accessible parking would be located closer to the school. Although they did not vacate the street, the city did agree to allow for one-way traffic only on St. John. Parent drop-off will be in front of the school on St. John Street, while buses will drop off and pick up students at the back side of the school.

The two-story complex includes ten first and second grade classrooms on the first floor and ten fourth and fifth grade classrooms on the second floor, with both stairs and elevator access to the second floor. It also includes a recreational gym for physical education that will double as a storm shelter and a commons area that will be used to serve lunch and for other school gatherings like performances.

“We designed this building with a lot of flexibility in mind,” Spindler said.

Dr. Fuerstenau said that approval of the site and floor plan really ramps up the project. 

The district will present exterior renderings to board members at a special reorganizational meeting on April 29.

Board President Julie Abel asked about special education classrooms, and Spindler said they have that covered. Abel also asked about dedicated classrooms for music and art. Dr. Fuerstenau said that since the district currently only uses four classrooms at each grade level, and the building will include five for each grade level (to accommodate future growth), they will have dedicated rooms for music and art.

Abel asked why the restrooms were planned only on the end of the building, and Spindler said it was for evening activities, so the classroom wings could be locked down for evening programs, but bathrooms would still be accessible.

For part, Noder said this was one of the most efficient buildings they have built, which helps to drive down costs. He added that the building project is currently on budget, and they are looking to bid out the work in the fall with construction scheduled to start in the winter.

Board member Mike Fleming asked about the spike in the cost of materials, as well as labor shortage, and Noder said that escalating costs were built into the budget, adding that he feels like commodity prices will level out. In terms of labor, Noder said they are in a good location with contractors from the metro St. Louis area, Springfield and even Decatur as possible to bid on the project. Noder also introduced Eric Lohman to the board, who will serve as the project manager.

Abel asked how the district will keep the community informed of the progress on the building, and Dr. Fuerstenau said the district just put up a sign on the property and will continue to put updates on the website.

Near the end of the meeting, Fleming announced the City of Litchfield had approved provisions at its meeting to allow progress on the building to continue. Audible cheers filled the room.

Fleming said that he hoped the public would offer comments as progress continues.

“We are working hard to do the best we can for our kids,” Fleming said.

Following closed session, the board unanimously approved the purchase of 120 W. St. John Street in Litchfield for $300,000. The property is currently home to Litchfield Sports, Inc. (LSI). Dr. Fuerstenau said it will give the district options moving forward.

Other Business

In other business, the board unanimously approved a yearly renewal with OPAA Food Service. Dr. Fuerstenau said the state sets the renewal rate each year.

The board also unanimously approved a new math curriculum called Envision Math for kindergarten through eighth grade students. The program, which features both paper workbooks and digital instruction, costs $160,000 for six years. Curriculum Coordinator Jennifer Thompson said the district would pay for it with funding from the Kilton Foundation, as well as federal funding from the Cares Act.

In making her presentation, Thompson said it was definitely time for a change in math curriculum. The committee felt this program was very strong at every grade level, and was also teacher-friendly, student-friendly and parent-friendly.

“But we’re most excited about the intervention that comes with it,” Thompson said.

As the pandemic continues, district staff continue to see gaps in learning among students. This particular curriculum has a built-in Success Maker feature to help students who need extra math support. The program offers how much extra time each student needs, amounting to 15 or 20 minutes three to five days a week.

“We have to set aside that time,” Thompson said. “This has to be a priority for our students.”

The program provides a “road map” for helping the district’s students to meet the state standards set in math.

Abel asked how they would plan for the additional time, and Thompson said they would have to do some scheduling. Students may miss part of another class time, but they would try to pull them out of different classes, instead of the same one each time.

Abel also asked how they would instruct the teachers on using the new curriculum, and Thompson said they have scheduled training this summer, for the program to roll out in the fall.

Fleming asked that while the program may help students meet state standards, would it help teach them real-life skills. Thompson said she felt like it would, in teaching multiple ways to solve problems and offering students the tools they need to solve the problems.

Board members would unanimously approve amending the 2020-2021 school calendar, with the final day on Monday, May 24. Fleming said he worried about kids not showing up for the final day to turn in books and equipment since it was a Monday, and Thompson said most administrators and teachers plan fun activities for students since it’s the last day, and that most kids want to come.

The board also unanimously approved the school calendar for the 2021-2022 school year. Dr. Fuerstenau said he met with the district’s academic advisory committee about the calendar, which is very similar to other Montgomery County schools, as they move forward with the Montgomery County School Consortium. The first day of student attendance will be Aug. 13.

Fleming asked about a day off on Veterans Day this year, which falls on a Thursday, and whether students would return for that Friday. Dr. Fuerstenau said Veterans Day often falls in the middle of the week, and they don’t usually have a problem with students returning.

“Sometimes we are in school on Veterans Day, and it’s a chance to educate our students on the great sacrifice men and women made in this country,” Fleming said.

Abel asked if the district was planning to return to its previous five-day schedule with dismissal later in the afternoon, and Dr. Fuerstenau said they were.

The board unanimously approved a policy update from the Press Plus service about an exemption for physical education. Dr. Fuerstenau said it one sentence was not included in the previous update.

In the consent agenda, the board approved minutes from the previous meeting, paid the bills and heard the monthly treasurer’s report. Dr. Fuerstenau said bills were tracking, and the district had submitted for funding from the federal ESSR 2 program (which is pandemic relief funding). He added there is added pressure for the governor to release additional evidence-based funding, but as of now, the district will receive what it has the previous two years.

Dr. Fuerstenau said the bills are typical, but the board will have to amend the budget at its June board meeting for additional federal funds received and expenses.

The board approved a total of $357,574 in bills, including $281,771 from the education fund, $32,704 from operations and maintenance, $31,733 from transportation, $10,096 from capital projects and $1,569 from tort. In his treasurer’s report, Dr. Fuerstenau said the district has a total of $29.9 million in all funds, including $7.6 million in operating expenses, $13 million in capital projects and $7.6 million in health life safety.

Information Items

Elementary principals Adam Favre and Jeremy Heigert made a presentation to the board about upcoming changes to the district’s literacy program. Administrators and staff are working their way through a book study called, “Language at the Speed of Sight.” Teachers will receive 30 hours of professional development as part of the study.

Dr. Fuerstenau said it’s based on a lot of research, but that 95 percent of all students, regardless of their background, can learn to read with significant instruction. He said that it in no way reflects the teachers in the district, but they are working on learning more about how the brain learns to read and new ways to teach reading. He added this is not a new curriculum, but rather instilling new practices to improve reading.

Favre said in August, teachers will meet with some of the researchers in person. He also presented a road map of the district plans. This fall, they will begin to collect data on current reading practices and take inventory of the district’s resources. They hope to begin full implementation of science of reading practices by the 2022-2023 school year. The upcoming summer Camp Panther program will also be instrumental in helping students not lose reading skills. The district plans to continue it in subsequent years as well.

Heigert presented a poster on how the brain learns to read, and praised teachers for jumping into the program together to help students read better.

In his enrollment report, Dr. Fuerstenau noted the district is currently serving 1,189 students in pre-K through 12th grade.

During the administrator reports, Favre said they are seeing a lot of excitement for Camp Panther, with about 110 students signed up for the 19-day camp in June. They are working to provide door-to-door bus service as well for families in need of it. The camp will focus on literacy, but will also include fun activities, provided by Litchfield Unlimited and the YMCA as well as the University of Illinois Extension. Favre said they are using federal COVID relief dollars to pay for the camp.

Heigert added that they recently met with the Litchfield Chamber of Commerce on working with local businesses to provide incentives to the kids who attend the camp.

Abel asked about training for staff members running the camp, and Favre said they are looking for one teacher to lead the camp curriculum with other teachers and support staff assisting. They have purchased a literacy curriculum from Scholastic for the camp.

In his report, Litchfield Middle School Principal Dr. Russ Tepen said teachers have identified about 40 students who will need to attend summer school in order to be promoted a grade. He had high praise for teachers and coaches for working hard throughout the pandemic to help students, even though it meant lots of changes.

“No one complained,” Dr. Tepen said. “And the teachers feel like they know the kids better.”

He said they are planning a virtual eighth grade recognition on May 24, and also working on some fun Olympic-type games to end the school year.

Building and Grounds Coordinator Bob Witter said bus drivers were doing a great job with additional routes for sporting events. He said mowing is the biggest thing on their agenda right now, adding he’s glad they did extra work on the high school baseball and softball fields last year.

“The whole complex just looks great right now,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.

In his report, Dr. Fuerstenau said the eighth grade team held a virtual career fair on April 16, and he would provide the link to board members.

He added they are working hard to get more information out to families about dual credit classes offered at the high school.

He said that this year’s high school musical is coming together and will be shown at the drive-in this May, and that Prom will be held on April 24.

Abel asked if the sports schedule would return to normal in the fall, and Dr. Fuerstenau said he thought so and that the district was planning summer contact days.

He added that the Illinois State Board of Education is no longer requiring the district to offer a remote learning option in the fall.

Closed Session

The board met in closed session for nearly an hour. In addition to approving the purchase of LSI, they also approved an undisclosed settlement agreement with the “Doe Family” and the school district.

In personnel, they accepted the resignation of instructional tutor Melissa Allen, middle school girls basketball coach Patrice Corso and freshman boys basketball coach Scott Zobrist.

They approved the hire of Mitchell Floyd as aide to the Make-It program, Taylor Henley as elementary school music teacher and Derek Odle as a full-time 30 hour per week custodian for 12 months a year.

The board approved the involuntary transfer of Whitney McSperritt from first grade to second grade and the voluntary transfer of Alexandria Plovich from special education classroom aide to instructional tutor.

The meeting adjourned at 8:36 p.m. Board members will meet again on Thursday evening, April 26, for a reorganizational meeting and to give the oath of office to board members who were elected in the April election, including Gregg Hires, Julie Abel and Ron Anglin. All three currently serve on the board.

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