Members of the Litchfield School Board officially set Thursday evening, June 18, as this year's graduation for Litchfield High School seniors during their regular board meeting on Thursday evening, May 21.
With all board members present, the group met in the Litchfield Middle School cafeteria, where each board member sat at an individual table, and some board members wore masks throughout the duration of the meeting.
Although listed on the agenda with a potential in-person graduation date of Saturday, July 18, Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau told the board it looks like Illinois will not meet requirements to enter phase four of the Restore Illinois plan until later in August, making it impossible to hold an in-person graduation in the gym in July. He added that other surrounding school districts were beginning to move their ceremonies earlier as well.
Dr. Fuerstenau said the district was already making plans to honor seniors. While the meeting was going on, district staff were installing individual photo banners in front of the high school with photos of the seniors in their caps and gowns taken by Minndora's Specialty Photography.
In addition, LHS Principal Doug Hoster and his staff have been working with Sky View Drive-In in Litchfield for an alternative graduation date on Thursday evening, June 18. Later this week, each senior would be given an individual time slot to walk across the stage in Simmons Gym, with his or her parents present for the experience. Minndora's Specialty Photography will be on hand for professional photos.
It will be videotaped as well, for a presentation at the drive-in on June 18.
Hoster added that in making plans for graduation, about a dozen seniors would not have been available in July due to previous commitments.
Board President Julie Abel said she had several parents and students reach out to her about an in-person graduation early on, but since then, she feels they need to move forward with an earlier graduation and give closure to seniors and their families. She was also concerned about some that would not be able to participate if the ceremony was not held until July.
Board member Gregg Hires asked if the district could increase the number present when each student walks across the stage in the gym.
"Who can come in?" Hires asked. "It would be nice to allow for six or seven family members."
Board member Mike Fleming also encouraged the district about the possibility of letting grandparents come watch the students cross the stage.
"Maybe we could get guidance from the health department," Fleming said. "I don't want to run afoul, but you can be pretty distant in Simmons Gym."
Hoster said they were planning to limit it to parents and stepparents, and trying to keep the total number of people in the gym under ten, which included the photographers and some district staff. Based on guidelines from the Illinois State Board of Education, everyone entering the school will be asked to wear a mask, although seniors may remove the mask when they walk across the stage. He said he has been in contact with the health department, and would be willing to contact them again about additional persons in the gym, but felt that they were already being pretty liberal.
"It's not the greatest situation," said Dr. Fuerstenau. "Each district has done it differently. But we have done a pretty good job of maintaining our facilities and keeping the numbers down."
He added that he would not be present during the three days of videotaping, allowing for the high school administration to be part of it, and to keep students flowing in and out during the process.
"The last thing we want is for someone to get sick while we do this," he said.
Hoster said the video will then be shown at the drive-in on Thursday evening, June 18, which holds 350 cars. Each senior will be given about two tickets and there will be a lottery for spots. They will have a makeshift stage, and students will have a chance to walk across it that night when their names are read. He added that the video will be streamed on social media as well to give those in the community a chance to see it.
Board member Val Cain encouraged district staff to limit the areas where students and their parents were when they come in for videotaping, as the staff has worked hard at keeping the building clean and sanitized. She suggested that additional family members could wait in their cars and then do some family photos outside afterwards.
Board members voted to withdraw the original motion for a graduation date of July 18 and move forward with a graduation at the drive-in on June 18. Hires voted against both motions.
Prior to the meeting, the board held a public hearing about their intent to issue $21 million in general obligation bonds. No members of the public were present for questions, although Kendall King of King Financial was on hand for the hearing. John Hanafin of The Litchfield News Herald said he felt the district was vague in describing what the funding would be used for, and he questioned whether they were building a new building or adding on to an existing one. Abel said that had not been decided yet. Hanafin also asked about building in a safety margin, and King said that was already built in, adding the district would be able to refinance it in eight to ten years if they so desired.
Fleming, who is also president of Litchfield National Bank, asked King if there would be any problem selling the bonds in light of current market conditions. King said there was some difficulty in selling bonds in March, but things are back to normal now.
Board members unanimously approved the consent agenda, including paying May bills and the monthly treasurer's report. Dr. Fuerstenau said the bills reflect this time of year and that things were progressing like normal. He said at this time, the district was about 3.1 percent under budget.
In May bills, the district approved $131,457 from the education fund, $45,143 from operations and maintenance, $22,295 from transportation, $39,402 from capital projects and $54 from tort. The balance of all district funds as of April 30 was $7.8 million, with $5.7 million in operating funds. The balance of the capital projects fund (made up of the county-wide 1 percent sales tax) is $869,532.
In addition to setting a graduation date, the board unanimously approved a two-year renewal with Blue Cross Blue Shield for employee health insurance. Dr. Fuerstenau said the package came with a two-year locked in rate with about an 8.1 percent increase over the next two years. He added that the Litchfield Education Association (teachers' union) was aware of the proposal and had agreed.
The board also looked at a first reading of board policy updates from the Press Plus service and plan to vote on them in June.
In a final item of new business, the board unanimously approved the consolidated district plan, which is done annually and allows the district to apply for Title and grant funding from the state and federal government. The plan is put together by Curriculum Coordinator Jennifer Thompson.
The board set a public hearing prior to their next regularly scheduled board meeting on Tuesday evening, June 23, beginning at 6 p.m. to approve an amended budget. Among the items on the amended budget are the security system lease agreement and the bus loan. The meeting was changed to allow for the amended budget to be on display for 30 days.
Before going into closed session, Dr. Fuerstenau told the board the district does not yet know what things will look like this fall. They continue to watch guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Illinois State Board of Education. Over the course of the pandemic, the district provided 41,000 meals to students from March 17 through May 21. Dr. Fuerstenau said that the First Baptist Church in Litchfield had now stepped up to the plate and would be providing meals starting on June 1.
He said the state legislature was currently in session and that the district was expecting a flat budget in terms of education, meaning they would get the same amount they got last year from the state with no pro-ration.
Under the federal stimulus CARES Act, the district got $631,614 and plan to use it to update technology, providing a one-to-one ratio for students. They will purchase touchscreen tablets for kindergarten students and Chromebooks for students in first through 12th grade. Dr. Fuertenau said this would add to the fleet of Chromebooks they already have, and that the district is making plans for a thorough and robust E-learning plan. Abel asked about how it went with returning Chromebooks and other district materials this spring, and Dr. Fuerstenau said it was very successful at all grade levels.
Also with the CARES Act funding, the district will purchase more cleaning and sanitizing supplies, 4,000 masks, face shields and replacements, planning ahead for the fall.
Hires asked how soon they would be able to let families know what was going on this fall, and Dr. Fuerstenau said they continue to monitor the situation.
The board spent nearly an hour and a half in closed session, and unanimously approved the personnel report. They accepted the resignation of Savannah Dieckow as middle school special education teacher, effective at the end of the school year.
Board members approved the transfer of fourth grade teacher Shelby Fults to Title 1 reading teacher and high school English teacher Sherry Pratt to middle school special education teacher, both for the coming school year.
They also hired Tanner Odle as summer buildings and grounds worker, Abby Carlson as career services coordinator and assistant volleyball coach, Emily Frerichs as high school special education teacher, Maggie Gunn as elementary special education teacher, Ashley Schaefer as a pre-kindergarten teacher, Elizabeth Clark as a kindergarten teacher, Stephanie Short as a fourth grade teacher, John Hughes as elementary physical education teacher and head high school volleyball coach, Scott Durbin as high school art teacher and Stacy Carter as high school English teacher.