It was a long night for members of the Litchfield School Board, who met for four and a half hours as part of their regular monthly meeting on Thursday evening, Dec. 17, in the conference room at Litchfield High School.
With Board Vice-President Jeff Seabaugh absent from the meeting, the board discussed five items under new business.
Board members unanimously approved a contract agreement with DNT, Inc. (Document Network Technology) for an upgrade in the district's technology. At last month's meeting, the district auditor pointed out a fund that can only be used for the leasing of technology, and it currently has a nest egg of around $200,000. About $50,000 is annually levied into the fund.
Superintendent Jeff Strieker said he reviewed all the district's lease contracts for copiers, which are currently leased with DNT, Inc. The company proposed a shared opportunity for the district for the lease of seven new copy machines. Old copiers will be taken to schools to replace printers, since ink cartridges for printers are quite costly. He estimated the district can make one print for the price of ten copies.
The agreement also includes a $2,000 allowance for scanning the hard copies of the district's personnel files. The files will be returned as CDs, and also kept on hard drive back-up with the company. It will also allow the district to add to the data electronically from here on out.
"That's a cumbersome task that we could never do on our own," Strieker said.
Board member Meg Wertin asked if the scanning included verification of the documents, and Strieker said it did. She asked if they would destroy all the old files, and Strieker said this company is already contracted to do that for the district.
Wertin also asked if it was just employee files at this time, and Strieker said it would just be personnel information for now.
"No student files will be scanned at this time, until we see the functionality of this project," Strieker said.
He added that the district is required to keep student information and records for no less than 20 years.
In addition to the things already mentioned, the contract includes eight iPads for use only by members of the school board and two additional printers for labels and envelopes. It will cost in the range of $23,000 to $24,000 a year, leaving around $30,000 in the technology fund for leasing of additional technology. While the agreement is new, the annual contract with the company remains the same.
Strieker said they would be looking at a rotational plan to upgrade the district's technology on an annual basis, with the possible addition of laptops or Chromebooks.
Board member Dennis Scobbie asked when they would be coming, and Strieker said the new system should be in place before students return to school on Jan. 5.
Wertin asked if the district would see an actual reduction in paper, and Strieker said he feels the district is pretty conservative already with its paper use. They purchase paper through a co-op, and have purchased less this year than last year.
In health, life, safety news, board members unanimously agreed to submit health, life, safety violations, compiled by Steckel-Parker Architects, to the Illinois State Board of Education. Dave Steckel has attended the last two board meetings, presenting pictures and reports of health, life, safety violations at Sihler, Madison Park, Colt and Russell schools.
Board President Jeff Helgen asked how long it would take the state to review the information, and Strieker said it could be as quick as three weeks or as long as one to two months.
Strieker added that health, life, safety issues are a pressing matter at the state right now, and they are offering 0 percent or very low interest bonds for construction for renovation or new construction projects. He said the district could apply for up to $13 million in the bonds over ten years.
"It's an opportunity to get more bang for our buck, since we aren't paying as much in interest," Strieker said. "We need to consider moving forward with these violations."
Strieker said if the board applies for the bonds, and then decides against using the funding, they are allowed to send it back.
Helgen asked why health, life, safety issues are such a hot topic, and Strieker said that because of budget cuts and constraints, many districts have trouble keeping up with their building maintenance.
Board member Gregg Hires asked the length of time to complete the projects. He thought Steckel told the board they would only have five years to complete the renovations once they are submitted to the state. Strieker said he would look into it.
The board voted unanimously to increase pay for substitute teachers in the district. Strieker said the last time the board made adjustments was in the 2000-2001 school year. Currently, the district pays $80 per day for a substitute teacher, and $100 for a substitute after 20 days and $127 per day after 30 days.
The new agreement would offer $90 per full day of substitute teaching, and then $110 per day after 20 days (retroactive to day one) and $135 after 30 days (retroactive to day one). Retirees of the Litchfield School District will be offered $10 additional per full day.
"There's a much smaller pool of subs now," Strieker said. "We hope this will improve our access to high quality subs."
Board members unanimously voted to contract the Illinois State Board of Education to engage in board goals development training. Strieker said some board members attended a presentation at the Triple I conference on goal setting, and he contacted Field Service Director Larry Dirks for some additional information. Dirks offers both all-day Saturday sessions, as well as evening events.
"I think it's a good idea," said board member Donna Wujek. "It needs to be done."
Board member Ron Anglin said it's something they used to do all the time.
"It's been a long time coming," Helgen said.
In a final item of new business, the board unanimously agreed to a three-year contract with Bushue Human Resources in Effingham to become a retained client of the firm. The district currently uses the company to provide background checks for potential new employees and volunteers in the district, and it costs just over $50 each.
With the new agreement, the company will provide non-fingerprinted background checks for $8 each, as a full service retainer client.
Hires asked how much the district currently spends on background checks each year, and Strieker said they cost $52 each. Hires said the district would still be spending more overall as a full service client than they do each year just on the background checks. Strieker said the full service fee would be about $720 a month. The company would also be providing some worker's compensation and unemployment information.
Funding for the agreement would come from the tort fund, where there is ample money to cover the expense.
Hires asked about the length of time needed for the background check and additional training for volunteers, and Strieker said they would be proactive in working with current and new volunteers.
Wujek said that all current volunteers already have a full background check in the system. Wertin asked if it was a one-time screening, and Strieker said volunteers did not have to be screened every year.
"I see this as a huge monkey off our back," Helgen said.
Administrators presented the results from last year's PARCC standardized testing. It was the first year state-wide for the test, and the first year all students were expected to complete it all on a computer.
Colt and Russell elementary schools Principal Andrea Lee said the state superintendent send out a letter reminding families this was the first time the test had been administered, and that it was only one piece of the child's education.
Lee said that overall scores were low across the district and the state. She said she found it promising that although they didn't have many students in the meets and exceeds category, they had a large number in the approaching, more so than the state average.
Last year, the test was given twice, once in January and once in the spring. District officials never received results from the first set, and were supposed to get test results in a timely fashion. This year, students are only taking the test once, and school districts have a window of six weeks to administer the test.
"I think that's a big mistake," Lee said. "It will be hard for them to compare results if some students take the test in March and others in May throughout the state."
Strieker said based on the new state standards, teachers are expected to teach less and promote more independent student learning. However, at the same time, teachers are also held more responsible for student learning.
"It's definitely a change in thinking, and that's hard to wrap your mind around," Lee said.
Litchfield Middle School Principal Jennifer Thompson said that looking at the report was depressing.
"Our kids did not do well, but we knew that going in," she said. "I'm choosing to focus on the positives."
LHS Principal Doug Hoster echoed those sentiments, and said he questioned the validity of a test where 59 percent of the respondents failed.
"We will continue to teach with vigor and reverence at LHS and let the PARCC scores fall where they may," Hoster said.
Strieker said another change at the high school might be a move from the ACT test to the SAT test, which could be brought in as early as this spring.
"We do a really good job of educating everyone, but we need to find a way so these test results don't look so demoralizing, especially to our kids," Strieker said.
In an enrollment update, the district has 1,464 students, which is about the same as the previous month.
Hoster also provided a curriculum update at the high school. He has been working with guidance counselor Brenda Elvers on offering an additional math class in lieu of algebra two. High school students are required to complete three years of math, and at LHS, the progression is algebra, geometry then algebra two.
Hoster said it's very difficult for 100 percent of the students to pass algebra two. He suggested a tech math class, similar to what would be offered for apprentice training. The class has been reviewed by both the school's math teachers.
"This is not a watered down class," Hoster said. "But it will provide relevant, real world applications for math."
In another note, Hoster said the district had 21 students interested in next year's Montgomery County CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) program. Currently, there are no Litchfield students participating in the pilot class, which teaches business skills.
Strieker added that he's working with Elvers on a software grant for the guidance office, which would be a valuable tool in communication, as well as help with student goal setting.
Strieker gave a brief update on the Fogleman Farm trust, which has given $2.7 million in scholarships since 1986. He noted the most recent changes in guidelines was in 2013. Strieker said that Larry Halleman, the manager of the farm project will give an official update at the February board meeting.
In a final note, Strieker asked Madison Park Elementary School Principal Adam Favre and Student Services Director Mark Hunt to talk about the day Madison Park students attended Litchfield Middle School.
Favre said that early one morning, the carbon monoxide detectors went off at 6 a.m., and by 7:30 they had an emergency plan in place. The kindergarten and first grade students were bused to the middle school, who provided some classrooms.
Favre said that everything went relatively smoothly, and that a fringe benefit of the day was having the older students work with the younger ones, which is impossible most days because of the attendance centers.
"All the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together here," Favre said. "It could have been a mess that day, but it wasn't. Only a few kids stayed home from school. They came for an adventure, and we had one."
Hunt also said how well things went. He added that the problem was not in a boiler or rooftop unit, but in a propane power machine that had been taken out of the school and was being tested.
"I've been here for 23 years, and every time there is an emergency or a crisis, our staff comes through," Hunt said. "This district has a fabulous staff that care about our kids at every single building in this district.
He also praised Ameren and Litchfield firefighters for responding quickly and coming several times. Board President Jeff Helgen thanked the district for handing things so well.
The board unanimously approved a second reading on 22 changes to school board policies, from the Press Plus service where the district subscribes. Strieker said they were mostly date changes and language changes.
Board members also unanimously approved the 2015 property tax levy, which is approximately a 4 percent increase over last year. Since it falls under 5 percent, the district is not required to do a Truth in Taxation hearing. Strieker said the levy is based on a 3.1 percent increase in the equalized assessed value of property in the district, and he expects to receive an additional $253,000 in funding, mostly to the education fund. He said they also increased the levy to the IMRF fund with the potential that the state of Illinois will impose a statewide property tax freeze.
Under the consent agenda, the board unanimously voted to pay the bills, approve the minutes from the last meeting, as well as the treasurer's report and to destroy tape recorded closed session minutes from November 2013.
Strieker told the board that at the November meeting, they approved an IMRF payment to EFE 430 (a vocational program in Vandalia), but since then, they discovered if it was paid in full by Jan. 1, the interest would be eliminated, saving the district $331.
In his treasurer's report, Strieker said he was now including a current inflows and outflows monthly report in board packets. Board President Jeff Helgen asked why the expenses to the education fund were already at 54%, less than halfway through the school year. Strieker explained that expense are often higher at the start of the school year, and also that the district is required to pay for all Mid-State Special Education services by Jan. 1, which totals $1.3 million from the education fund. He looked for expenses to level out in the first part of the year.
As part of the Citizens Agenda, LHS Student Council President Megan Evans gave the board a report of the latest happenings at the high school. She said the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group raised $200 through a Krispy Kreme sale to help support, Jacques, a child in Africa through Compassion International. The FCCLA sold candy canes in December and will be working concession stands at sporting events to raise money for the family of Grace Herschelman. Evans added that Student Council hosted a blood drive in December, and will host another in February. They are also participating in a temporary license plate fundraiser, which is also for the Herschelman family. Student Council also had high school students sign Christmas cards for local nursing home residents.
Members of the Interact Club held a penny wars fundraiser and also a Krispy Kreme sale to raise money for the food pantry. Band and choir members have been traveling around town performing Christmas music, and just had their Christmas concert as well. The SADD organization lit the annual Tree of Lights to remind students to make good decisions over the winter break. They also held a study session to help students study for finals, which were held Thursday and Friday at the high school.
In sports news, the girls basketball team is 8-2, the boys basketball team is 5-3 and the wrestling team is 6-2. Evans said both the junior varsity and varsity scholastic bowl teams finished first in their leagues for the fall session. Winter session begins on Jan. 16. In a final note, she mentioned that the girls cross country team competed at state this fall and earned 11th place.
In November, members of the school board, as well as Strieker and Della Witter, the district's business manager, attended the annual Illinois Association of School Boards Triple I conference in Chicago. Strieker asked board members to share about some of the sessions they attended and what they learned.
"There's just a wealth of opportunities up there, and I think everyone learned something," he said.
Witter said she attended all sessions on district finances, and said she learned a lot. Board members attended a variety of sessions on everything from decision making to state legislation and technology updates.
Strieker said in addition to the workshops, the conference also provides a great opportunity to network with school boards from all over the state.
"There was just so much energy in this place," said Wertin, who attended for the first time. "It was a bit overwhelming, but I'm so grateful I got to go."
Strieker said the board took home many new ideas and things to implement in Litchfield, some of which were already on the agenda at the December meeting.
"For those of you who wonder if there's justification to send the board, this conference is a great representation of school boards from all over the state," Strieker said. "Look at tonight's agenda, and you will see many things come to fruition.
In a final note on the Citizen's Agenda, the board heard a report on the district's PERA (Performance Evaluation Reform Act) committee, which focuses on teacher evaluations. Strieker said the district has a committee of ten members including all the administrators and some teachers, and has been working hard this school year. They have already met three or four times.
Madison Park Elementary School Principal Adam Favre said the committee wants to avoid falling into the state default evaluation, which is based on 50 percent teacher performance and 50 percent student growth. He said they are looking at how to best measure results in the classroom, how many students are fully engaged and how to fairly rate and evaluate teachers.
LHS Principal Doug Hoster said he felt like it was important to honestly assess what's going on in the schools, and not just individual student growth. Strieker said the district held one inservice in November, and would host another one on Jan. 4.
"Instead of just evaluating teachers one time, administrators will be in and out of the classroom every day," Strieker said. "There's a great deal of merit to this approach."
In closing, board member Dennis Scobbie announced he would once again retire from the district on Friday, Dec. 18. He said his students were pleased to be offered the chance to receive dual credit for their work, and he wanted to share that with the board.
"The message they sent to me is that they want even more dual credit classes," Scobbie said.
Following nearly two hours in closed session, the board accepted the resignation of Make-It program secretary Kathy Schleyhahn, effective immediately, and custodian Rick Hazelwood, effective Jan. 15, due to illness.
Board members accepted a letter of intent to retire from Catherine Brubaker, a Title I instructor at Colt School, and Nancy Flack, a kindergarten teacher, both effective at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. They also accepted a letter of intent to retire from elementary school music teacher Patrice Corso, effective at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.