Litchfield School Board Agrees To Feasibility Study

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Following a presentation from Dr. Bob Mulch of Hillsboro, members of the Litchfield School Board approved participation in a county feasibility study, during their regular monthly meeting on Thursday evening, Aug. 16, at Litchfield High School.

All board members were present for the discussion, including the newest board member, Valerie Cain, who was given the oath of office at the start of the meeting.

Dr. Mulch, along with four members of the feasibility study committee (Harry Hutchison and Don Karban of Hillsboro and Jerry Williams and Mike Fleming of Litchfield), attended the board meeting to make a presentation for a county-wide feasibility study to look at additional educational opportunities for local students. The study is being fully funded by outside donors, including the Montgomery County Board, who gave $10,000 in coal royalty funds, Hillsboro Area Hospital, Big Dawg Dare, local banks and other area businesses.

Dr. Mulch said that although the biggest contributor is the Montgomery County Board, the county is not looking to control local schools.

"This study is not being funded with tax dollars, and the county board looks at it as economic development," said Dr. Mulch.

The Hillsboro School District has already accepted the offer to participate in the feasibility study, and the group will meet soon with the Nokomis and Pahandle school boards. The study is expected to cost between $18,000 and $20,000 and is being done by three professors at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

Dr. Mulch said the study is expected to take three to four months to complete, and at this time, they are only asking school districts to cooperate in providing the needed information for the study.

"The primary goal of this study is to improve the educational opportunities of students in our county," said Dr. Mulch. "And we're asking for your help."

Board member Gregg Hires asked if other counties in Illinois had done similar studies, and Dr. Mulch said not necessarily counties, but this trio of professors have been involved with many school feasibility studies. He said they have a 25 percent success rate. Board member Julie Abel asked if any of the studies were available for review, and Dr. Mulch said there were several to look at online.

Board President Jennifer Reid asked Dr. Mulch what he meant when he used the word, "reorganization," and he asked if she meant the "C" word (consolidation).

"That's definitely a potential finding," Dr. Mulch said. "We don't know what the answers will be, but this is an opportunity to get information and make intelligent decisions."

Reid said she was excited to see the results of the comprehensive study.

"I think it's a bit premature to say we would commit to a reorganization," Reid said. "We want to make sure we look at all aspects. If this is best for the kids and our county, I'll be on board, but we'll have to look at how the rest of the dominoes will fall."

Dr. Mulch said that decisions like that were down the road, and that any possible consolidations would have to be considered by county voters, which would likely not be possible until at least 2020.

"We're just trying to make this as painless as possible," he said. "The real decisions will be made when we get the study results."

Reid also asked about the man-hours required to gather information, and Dr. Mulch said he wasn't sure, but he felt it would be manageable.

"Why wouldn't someone say yes?" Abel asked the group. "Is it a fear of what the answers might be?"

Feasibility study member Don Karban said that's possible, but he hoped school districts would not avoid the feasibility study because of this.

"This is a great opportunity for all our school districts to do this," said board member Dennis Scobbie.

Reid said the Litchfield School Board was prepared to commit to providing the resources needed to complete the study.

Budget Hearing

In addition to the presentation on the feasibility study, Superintendent Debbie Poffinbarger presented her tentative budget for the 2018-2019 school year. The budget calls for $18.1 million in revenues and $16.1 million in expenditures. Among the revenue items are $1.2 million working cash bond, which was tabled that night and $988,054 in capital improvement funds from the county-wide sales tax that may only be used on capital improvement projects.

Poffinbarger said the budget looked more promising than last year, but said the district was still in dire straits.

"We basically have no backup," she told the board. "That's the reason for the bond."

She said the budget also includes assumptions the board has discussed in terms of negotiations with the Litchfield Education Association (teachers' union), as those contracts have not yet been finalized.

The tentative budget was unanimously approved and will now be on display for 30 days at the unit office. A budget hearing has been set for Thursday, Sept. 20, beginning at 5:45 p.m. at Litchfield High School.

Working Cash Bond

Members of the school board unanimously voted to table a motion of interest with Stifel Financial Group to issue $1.2 million in working cash bonds. During the meeting, Tom Crabtree of Stifel Financial Group, made a presentation to the board about some of the district's options in terms of bonds.

He said the district has been very fiscally responsible over the years, and talked about some of the limits of bonds the district could issue.

Prior to his presentation, Mike Fleming of Litchfield National Bank addressed the board, and said he met with the other three community banks in Litchfield, and they were prepared to offer a $1.2 million working cash bond to the district themselves. Fleming said he felt their bond could be competitive and come at a lower cost to the district.

Abel asked Crabtree about fees incurred from Stifel Financial Group, and he said they have a flat fee of $10,000 for issuance of the bond. She also asked about the difference between his company and a bank loan, and Crabtree said under state law, school districts are not able to do a loan.

Fleming said that school districts cannot take out loans, however, he had been meeting with a bond attorney and doing research on the matter for the past five years.

"We could issue the same bond to you, and would not charge the fees for the bond issuance," Fleming said. "When it comes to Litchfield, I will do anything I can to help."

Fleming also encouraged the board to look at other banks and larger financial institutions to find the very best rate on a bond.

"But the biggest question you need to ask yourselves, is do we need to borrow the money?" Fleming told the board.

Abel asked why the board was looking into a working cash bond at this time, and Poffinbarger said last year, the district planned to abate $750,000 in working cash bonds to the education fund, but only had to use $500,000. She said that only leaves $70,000 in the working cash fund, and they have been using it to support the education fund for the past several years.

"We're going to need that as backup," Poffinbarger told the board.

Board member Gregg Hires asked if there was anything that would prevent Litchfield National Bank or another financial institution from offering an opinion on the financial state of the district, and Fleming said he would be happy to help, and thought any of the other banks in town would also offer free advice to the board.

Several board members still had questions on the bond matter, so it was tabled until the September meeting.

Other Business

Under the consent agenda, the board approved the regular and closed session minutes from the July 19 and July 31 meetings, as well as deletion of recorded closed session minutes from July 2016, per state statute.

The approved $353,268 in monthly bills for August, which includes $293,035 from the education fund, $38,662 from operations and maintenance, $7,245 from transportation and $14,325 from tort.

Abel asked if the district had been able to look at the bill from Consolidated Communications, as the Finance Committee thought there were several lines that might not be in use. Poffinbarger said she had not checked yet, but that she would look. Abel also asked about a $4,000 down payment for a video, and Poffinbarger said that was funding from the Kilton Foundation, as part of a larger communications package for district marketing.

Hires asked about the bills relating to the Summer Gifted Academy, and Poffinbarger said that parents pay a fee for their children to attend and that the program is self-sustaining.

Hires also asked about why the district's legal fees were up for the year, citing $14,000 in just the past month. He said he didn't think the district spent that much all last year. Poffinbarger said the district has worked on a couple of negotiation pieces that require a lawyer and have dealt with some personnel issues where a lawyer has been present.

"It's quite costly," she said.

In a final note about the bills, Hires asked about the new radios for the buses, which cost about $8,000 to upgrade, and Poffinbarger said the new radios have already come in very handy, and allow Building and Grounds Coordinator Brett Holliday not to be tied to his desk during bus routes.

In her treasurer's report, Poffinbarger said the district currently has a fund balance of $5 million at the end of July, which includes $635,808 in the capital projects fund and $3.1 million in the operating funds.

In new business, the board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with the Mid-Central Illinois Regional Council of Carpenters. Poffinbarger thanked former building trades teacher Justin Ripley for his help in getting the ball rolling. The high school will use the program's curriculum and upon completion, LHS students will receive certification of direct entry with six months credit as a registered apprentice with the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Fund.

Poffinbarger added that new building trades teacher Elbert Jones has already been through the curriculum. Scobbie asked if there was a cost to the district, and Poffinbarger said the group even provides the textbooks for the students at no cost. He also asked if other school districts in the area offered the program, and she said not that she was aware of.

Information Items

During the Citizen's Agenda, newly elected Student Council President Ellen Fleming reported the students had an assembly on the first day of school, and that fall sports were in full swing.

"We're looking forward to a great year at LHS," Fleming told the board.

During her superintendent's report, Poffinbarger said the district had received several FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, including two on an employee reprimand, one from the National Education Association, one from the Litchfield Education Association on names of retirees and one requesting the district's legal fees.

She discussed with the board about planning the annual retreat sometime in September, and a date will be announced soon.

Poffinbarger said that QNS Technology has been doing a great job keeping students and employees up and running since the first day of school, and their goal is to keep repair tickets daily in the single digits. She added they are beginning to work on cross-training district personnel on technology issues. In addition, QNS would be helping the district to recycle old, unused technology equipment.

In buildings and grounds news, Poffinbarger said Holliday found a great deal on LED bulbs at $1 apiece, and they would be placing them throughout the district.

She also talked about the safety drill on active school shootings held at the high school on Tuesday, Aug. 14, and said it was a wonderful experience.

"It was one of the best drills I've been through," she told the board. "It was such a collaborative effort. We're going to continue that work."

In a few final notes, she said the district's auditors had spent three days in Litchfield, and that things looked good. She said that D&M Electric in Litchfield offered the lowest bid for the new electronic sign in front of the high school. It's part of the Kilton grant package for communication, and Poffinbarger said they are hoping to do some of the work themselves to save on costs.

Poffinbarger said the district had a great first day of school on Thursday, Aug. 16, and that staff members were working hard to get to know the students throughout the district.

Each of the district's administrators also told the board about the first day of school, including new elementary principal Jeremy Heigert and Russ Tepen, who is the new co-principal at Litchfield High School.

"It's gonna be a great year," Poffinbarger said. "Just to see so many smiles, I'm excited."

Personnel

Following an hour and a half in closed session, the board approved the monthly personnel report.

They accepted the resignations of Danielle Barton as a Title I instructional tutor and Samuel Barton as an elementary physical education teacher. They also hired Stacie Triplett as an elementary physical education teacher.

They voted to increase one additional class period for Lisa Schaffer in the second semester and Justin Ripley in the first semester to cover driver's education sections.

The board also hired former LHS teacher and coach Andy Kassebaum as athletic director at the high school at a salary of 15 percent of the base salary.

They hired art teacher Kyle Lehnhardt as the Rembrandt Society sponsor, Jake Walker as a 12-month activities custodian at the high school, Kyle Mathenia as a 12-month district grounds custodian and Elbert Jones for a maintenance position, not to exceed 11 hours each week.

They also approved the reclassification of Angela Bloome and Melani Treece as instructional aides. The rate of pay, hours per day and days worked per year will not change.

After meeting for four hours, the board adjourned. They will meet again on Thursday, Sept. 20, with a budget hearing at 5:45 p.m., followed by the regular meeting in the Radius Room at Litchfield High School.

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