Long Meeting Night For Litchfield School Board

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 It was a long agenda and a long night for members of the Litchfield School Board at their regular monthly meeting on Thursday evening, May 16, at Sihler School.

With all board members present, the board heard two presentations for service contracts, approved a variety of repairs around the school district and honored several student achievements and district retirees.

One of two presentations that night, Greg Frost of OPAA! visited the school board to talk about the food services his company provides. Superintendent John Mullett said the district is required by state law to bid out its food service management every five years, and this year OPAA! came in lower than any other bids, including Aramark, who previously held the district's contract.

Frost said OPAA! has been in the food service management industry since 1978, and currently holds contracts in seven states for more than 200 school districts, including nine in Illinois. Mullett said he called five of those nine districts in Illinois, and all were very happy with the services provided by OPAA!

"We're strong everywhere we go," Frost said, attributing their success to cooking many meals from scratch. "That translates into increased participation, which makes happier students and staff."

Board President Julie Abel said the OPAA! bid came in substantially lower than any other bid, and she wondered how they could provide the same services for so much less than other companies. Frost said the company wins 80 percent of the bids they solicit, and are very competitive. He attributes much of the savings to cooking from scratch, and also touted the company's 98.5 percent retention rate for their services.

Abel also asked about the transition to the new company, and Frost said OPAA! representatives will spend a lot of time with the cooks this summer, and will continue to help as the school year starts. In addition, the district will have a full-time director here to help operations run smoothly.

Abel added that she recently had the opportunity to meet with the district's cooking staff and said they take great pride in what they do.

"They do like making food for our kids," Abel said.

She asked if the company was willing to hear concerns from the cooks on what foods the students like and don't like.

"We have big ears, and we're gonna listen," Frost said. "We're here to serve the kids and do the best we can."

Abel asked about providing more fresh fruit and vegetables, and Frost said that's a good highlight of what the program offers. He added they also provide salad bars in many of the schools. Building and Grounds Coordinator Bob Witter asked if the company provides the units for the salad bars, and Frost said they take care of everything.

Board member Mike Fleming said he was very impressed with the OPAA! presentation and asked if the company ever conducted surveys with districts about their service, and Frost said they do. Fleming said he was glad to hear about the salad bars as well.

"For many kids in our district, this is the only good meal they get in a day," Fleming said.

Fleming also asked if the company provides performance reports, and Frost said those are provided to administrators. Fleming added that the board is looking at a major kitchen renovation project, and asked if OPAA! representatives had any major concerns about the kitchen. Frost said he didn't know of any, but that OPAA! representatives are always happy to sit in on the design work of kitchen renovations as a help.

Before concluding the presentation, Mullett recognized many of the district's cooks in attendance at the meeting to learn more about the switch. Board members would later vote unanimously to approve the five-year contract from OPAA!

In other kitchen news, the board would vote 6-1 on a major two-year renovation project for the district's kitchen, which is located in the middle school and high school building. The board would approve a performance contract with Ameresco in two phases. Phase one includes replacing the cooler/freezer area and dry storage as well as replacing some of the existing equipment for $520,000 and phase two (to be completed in 2020) includes replacing the balance of the kitchen equipment and removing all the finishes for $450,000 to $500,000.

Mullett said that he and Abel met with the kitchen staff to discuss some pretty big issues. Among the problems, cooks have to manually light the burners with a lighter, the freezer is sinking into the ground and the equipment is getting old.

"I don't care who fixes it," Mullett told the board. "But something has to be done."

Witter added that much of the kitchen equipment is 25 to 30 years old, and that none of the ovens bake, they only keep food warm.

Abel said it's the board's intention to meet the food preparation needs of the district for the next 15 to 20 years.

"This is the only kitchen in the district to feed our kids," Abel said.

Witter added phase one definitely needed to be done, and Mullett said all the new equipment brought in would be able to be moved so that nothing would be damaged during phase two next year.

Fleming asked if the district sought other bids for this project, and Mullett said they are not required to bid out performance contracts. Fleming encouraged the board to take OPAA! up on its offer to meet with the design team on upgrades.

"I have no doubt it needs improvement," Fleming said. "But before we go and spent $1 million, I want to make sure it's needed. This is a great opportunity to do something right and not rush into it."

Board member Mark Bloome said that phase one is needed immediately, and the window to approve the contract and get it done before school starts is small. Mullett added that the freezer would have to be specially built for the space. Witter said if the contract was approved, the company would begin work on the freezer the very next day to ensure it was completed before school started.

Fleming asked when the freezer became a problem, and Witter said he was made aware of it two to three months ago, adding that an employee had tripped in one spot where it had sunk. Anglin added the problems were a safety concern as well, especially if cooks were having to manually light the burners.

"We have to take care of this issue now," Anglin said.

Another problem that came up is that custodian Darla Jubelt said there's not any heat in the kitchen area. One day when she got to work, it was 26 degrees in there, and she was surprised none of the pipes burst. There has been no heat in the kitchen for the past five to six years. Witter said that during this meeting was the first he learned that there was no heat in the kitchen.

"If we need some equipment, I'm not opposed to that," Fleming said. "But I don't want to buy a Cadillac just because we ran out of gas. I just hate to give a blank check for $1 million." Abel said she didn't feel like the district was issuing a blank check, and Fleming said he would like to see more of the bids and specs needed for the project. He also asked where the money would come from, and Abel said the district is looking into funding through local banks as well as health-life-safety bonds.

Mullett said the district will also be facing upcoming issues with problems with the playground at Colt School and other issues at Madison Park Elementary School.

"Since 2011-2012, things sort of got swept under the rug," Mullett told the board.

With Fleming's concerns about the performance contract over individual bids for the kitchen work, incoming Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau talked about the advantages of a performance contract, including a guaranteed price. Fleming said his concern was getting the best value for taxpayers if they weren't bidding out the work. Dr. Fuerstenau said the company does try to control costs and use local vendors if the district desires that.

Fleming asked if the board could ask for bids instead of a performance contract, and Dr. Fuerstenau said they could, but it might not yield any savings, by the time they hire an architect, which is required by law.

Fleming asked if the district had ever used Ameresco before, and Mullett said they had and were very pleased with the work done. 

Fleming added that in the past, he felt like performance contracts did not always provide the best value to the taxpayers. Abel said she shared some concerns about performance contracts, so she reached out to seven other school district superintendents on their opinion of Ameresco.

"They had nothing but very good things to say," Abel said. "And when they talked about performance contracts, they talked about the value they did provide to the taxpayer by providing quality services at cost savings."

Board member Gregg Hires added that Witter would not have time to submit all the bids for this major kitchen renovation project, and keep up with all his other duties for the district. Mullett said that in some cases, a performance contract is a better value for the district, and he felt like the Litchfield district could have saved quite a bit of money when it repaired its all-weather track if they had used a performance contract instead. 

"I appreciate the research," Fleming said. "We are sadly strapped by several long-term projects, and learning the lesson that we need to plan better for the future. It's sad that we are in a crisis."

Abel said she felt the board had to provide a safe work environment for employees and students.

"We have to do this," Bloome said.

"I just want to make sure we are getting the best deal," Fleming said, before being the lone dissenting vote on the two-year project.

Other Repairs and 

Maintenance

In other district repairs, the board unanimously approved a low bid from Kinney Contractors for $27,650 for concrete work at all buildings. Mullett said the district only received two bids, and that entrances to some of the schools needed to be fixed. Witter said the district would receive a good quality of work from Kinney Contractors.

The board also unanimously approved a bid from DeLaurent Construction Company for $44,985 for asphalt work at Colt School. Mullett said they had three bids, and one was nearly double the low bidder. He added that none of the bidders was local. Witter said they would take one to two inches off the top to repair some deep cracks and then replace it in an area of 25,000 square feet.

"There's no doubt that it needs maintenance," Fleming said. "But I wish we were spending the money on the greatest need there which is drainage."

Witter said the city has actually done some work to improve the drainage situation there, and that they would continue to monitor it.

Board members unanimously approved a bid from Stalker Sports Floors for $29,850 to refinish both the gym floors in the middle school and the high school. Mullett said the gym floor is very slick in places and that the paint has faded quite a bit from all the years of wax. Witter added that different companies have suggested different ways of maintaining the floor, and going forward they hope to adopt the same routine maintenance plan all the time. The new company will offer training to the coaches and custodians.

Abel asked about the life of the floor, and Witter said it could be up to ten years. Fleming asked where the funding would come from, and Witter said from operations and maintenance. He added that the gyms would be closed starting on June 28, and would be closed all of July for the refinishing work.

In a final repair item, the board unanimously approved a bid from Tremco Roofing and Building Maintenance for $310,635.54 to replace to the roof over the high school gym and stage areas.

"This is definitely a lack of maintenance, and we are paying for it," Bloome said.

Mullett said it didn't start under his tenure, but for years and years, the board had a yearly maintenance contract with Tremco, which was not continued several years ago.

"If we needed them, they were here," Mullett said. "This is a direct result of the fact they weren't here."

Witter said water continues to pond on top of the gym room. Abel asked how the district will maintain these roof repairs in the future, and Mullett said they will go back to a warranty with Tremco.

In total, the board spent over $1.4 million in repairs and renovations projects during the May meeting.

Other Business

In other business, the board unanimously approved a one-year renewal contract with Johnson Controls for HVAC maintenance and control in all district buildings.

Craig Heaton and Luther Thimsen of Johnson Controls were on hand for a presentation and to answer questions from the board about the contract. Heaton said Johnson Controls provides a building automation system for all six of the district buildings for its heating and cooling system.

"Basically anything that keeps you cool or keeps you warm is our job," Heaton said, adding the systems at all buildings are networked together. 

He added there are two components to their work, which includes 24 on-site visits a year, as well as insurance in case any of the controllers fail. Johnson Controls has provided services to the Litchfield School District since the 1990s.

Technician Luther Thimsen said he has been working in Litchfield since 1998, and felt the maintenance contract was a good benefit to the district, as each time a controller is replaced it could cost $4,000 to $9,000, and that is all covered under their contract.

Fleming asked about other repair work to the HVAC system, and Heaton said their contract only covers building automation, meaning the controllers which control the HVAC system, but that having a contract means the district gets a better billable rate on other repair projects. The district also uses Neuhaus Heaing and Cooling on some HVAC project repairs.

Fleming asked about an energy savings report to the district, and Heaton said they do provide data to the district, and also help with grant-writing when needed. 

Fleming asked about extreme temperature changes in the buildings and classroom, and Thimsen said each room has a control, which can be changed within three degrees either way of the set temperature.

The board tabled a renewal with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois for employee health benefits during the 2019-2020 school year.

They also unanimously approved the Bank and Trust Company of Litchfield as the district's depository and Cindy K. Bergman as its treasurer, effective the 2019-2020 school year through the 2023-2024 school year. Mullett said that every five years, the district rotates its accounts through the local banks. The previous five years were at First National Bank in Litchfield, and the next rotation in five years will be to Litchfield National Bank. Fleming abstained from the vote.

The board also unanimously approved the administration to negotiate the sale of the district's property at 504 E. Water Street in Litchfield. Mullett said they previously tried to sell it in September 2015, and he felt it was time to try selling it again, as they are only mowing the grass on it.

Consent Agenda

Under the consent agenda, the board unanimously approved the 2019-2020 student handbook, as well as monthly bills and the treasurer's report. In May, the district paid a total of $223,139 in bills, including $145,811 from the education fund, $53,822 from operations and maintenance, $18,065 from transportation and $5,440 from tort. As of April 30, the district had a total balance of $7.4 million, which includes a $4.8 million balance in operating funds and $1.3 million in the capital projects fund, which is funded through the county-wide 1 percent sales tax.

Board member Gregg Hires said he felt they should talk about one major change in the student handbook, which was a change in handheld electronics.

Litchfield High School Principal Doug Hoster said he met with a committee of 13 adults, including parents and teachers, and all felt the cell phone use at the high school is out of  control. He said 70 to 80 percent of discipline at the high school are cell phone and social media related. 

The new policy will allow students to carry phones to and from school, but they must remain in lockers all day. Previously, students were allowed to take them to lunch. Hoster said there are phones in every classroom in case of emergency, and the students have Chromebooks to access technology.

"The pros certainly outweigh the cons," he said.

Hires asked if this new policy would eliminate some of the alleged bullying issues at the high school, and Hoster said he hopes it will eliminate it during the school day.

"We will do our best to enforce it," he said.

Litchfield Middle School Principal Jennifer Thompson said the middle school already has a similar policy in place. Thompson said they are seeing fewer and fewer offenders each year the policy has been in place, and said there are about five repeating offenders at LMS.

Abel added that the district is hearing that parents are also in favor of such a policy.

Public Input

In calling the meeting to order, Abel noted it was nice to see such a large crowd of around 50 or so, gathered at Sihler School for the meeting. 

During the public input portion, Mike Rogers, pastor of the Litchfield Southern Baptist Church, spoke in favor of the social worker position, now held by Larry Blevins. It was funded last year by the Montgomery County Mental Health Board (708 Board).

"I tell everyone we are in the middle of drug central," Rogers told the board. "It's awful. I know it's everywhere."

Rogers talked about some specific examples he has seen at his own church, and encouraged the board to think about keeping this position as a way to help.

"We need some kind of social work done here, but it has to begin somewhere," Rogers said. "I don't know what we have to do to keep him, but we need to try."

Pastor Albert Chaney of Faith Christian Fellowship Church in Litchfield was also in attendance to voice his support of the social worker position, and said the Litchfield Ministerial Alliance supports it as well.

Citizens Agenda

Many of those in the large crowd were there for the student recognition part of the meeting, as administrators honored several district students.

Up first were those students selected for the Illinois Principals Association breakfast held each year at Greenville University, and one student is selected from each building. Those honored this year included first grader Ashlynn Wyatt, third grader Lucas Paine, fifth grader Isaiah Burdell, eighth grader Cassidy Law and senior Madison Throne.

Thompson introduced seventh grade boys basketball coach Chris Baugher, who recognized his team for finishing fourth at the IESA state tournament with an undefeated record in the regular season.

"They are good athletes, but even better students," Baugher told the board.

Thompson also recognized LMS wrestlers Alex Powell and Ashton Carver for earning medals at the state tournament. She also gave a shout out to many LMS athletes, who competed May 17-18 at the IESA state track meet.

Following the student recognition, Abel presented a plaque and a gift to this year's district retirees, including bus driver Tom Billiter (14 years), class aide Lisa Boden (27 years), secretary Candie Hart (20 years), kindergarten teacher Lisa Wright (33 years) and special education classroom aide Connie Jarman (25 years).

And before concluding the citizens' agenda, LHS Student Council President Ellen Fleming gave her monthly report, saying students look forward to finishing the year on a good note. She added that Student Council honored teachers with gifts throughout the week during Teacher Appreciation Week. She highlighted several year-end events, including the talent show and picnic, awards day, Prom, field trips and sporting events. Ellen Fleming said that this year's ETC Award went to high school teacher Susan Shelton.

Personnel

After finishing the citizens' agenda, the board met for about 50 minutes in closed session to discuss a variety of personnel items.

The board unanimously accepted all the items on this month's personnel list. Among those included approval of a letter of intent to retire from secretary Candie Hart, classroom aide Lisa Boden and middle school girls track coach Lori Heise, all effective this spring. They also accepted letters of intent to retire from elementary school guidance counselor Brenda Elvers and middle school physical education teacher Lori Heise, at the end of the 2023-2024 school year.

They approved the hire of Derek Odle as substitute custodian and bus driver and Scott Merano as substitute bus driver. The board also approved the hiring of Julia Bader as summer worker for the Make-It program, Taylor Little as a pre-K teacher, Stephanie Luttrell as third grade teacher, Hannah Wiggins as fifth grade teacher, Brooke Boehme as instructional tutor and Karen Cress as high school guidance counselor. Fleming abstained from the vote on Wiggins.

They also approved the voluntary transfer of Kate Alderman from fifth grade teacher to third grade teacher, and reinstated the stipend to Jo Brummet for communication technology and the high school yearbook. They also eliminated the fifth grade wrestling program.

The board tabled the hiring of special education teachers and aides.

Information Items

In his monthly enrollment report, Mullett said the district has 1,390 students as of April 30. 

He reminded the board of a public hearing to amend the budget on Thursday, June 20, beginning at 5:45 p.m. Mullett had high praise for district business manager Della Witter for preparing the budget, but with an increase in substitute pay, additions of athletic directors and the purchase of new vans, the budget is $100,000 over budget. The amended budget is now on display for 30 days at the unit office, located in Sihler School.

In other information items, Mullett told the board Fencemaster of Hillsboro was the only one who applied for the district's fence project, which will be done this summer. 

He said the district received FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests about the salaries of Mid-State Special Education aides.

Mullett also thanked the Kilton Fund in Litchfield, for all the ways it supports Litchfield education.

"They deserve a lot of credit," he said. "They have the best of Litchfield in their hearts."

Mullett also told the board that Dr. Bill Phillips has agreed to help at the school board member retreat for a stipend of $500, and board members are looking at potential dates.

Abel gave special praise to Building and Grounds Coordinator Bob Witter on his hard work in keeping the district at its best.

"We have to do a better job going forward," Abel said. "But Bob is doing a great job looking out for the safety of our students and staff."

In a final presentation, LHS Principal Doug Hoster passed out materials on a proposal to change the high school grade point average structure, honors system and eliminate class rank. He had several research articles in support of his proposal, and said that such measures encourage college admissions counselors to look more closely at student applications.

Hoster said he would like the board to approve the changes at the June meeting, but they would not take effect until the 2023 school year.

Fleming said he appreciated Hoster bringing the proposal forward, and said the board would love to hear some feedback from the public.

"I feel like it's our job to look at things like this," Hoster said. "And it's in the best interest of the majority of our students."

The board meeting adjourned at 9:27 p.m., nearly three and a half hours after it started. They will meet again on Thursday evening, June 20, beginning with a budget hearing at 5:45 p.m. at Sihler School.

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