On Aug. 12 of last year, the results of a study exploring school reorganization of the Panhandle, Litchfield, and Hillsboro school districts were presented to the community.
The impetus for the study was the concern that the quality of education was not perceived by potential new families as being as attractive as other larger schools north and south on the I-55 corridor. This study was funded by Montgomery County businesses and individuals. A group of individuals from Litchfield and Hillsboro, the Montgomery County School Study Commission (MCSSC), was responsible for bringing the issue to the communities’ attention. Although the Panhandle District was included in the study, the district had clearly indicated it was not interested in reorganization. The conclusion of the study by Midwest School Consultants, all professors at UIS, was:
“It is the recommendation of the consultant group that school district reorganization be utilized making a newly merged unit district comprised of the current Hillsboro and Litchfield Districts. In addition, the consultants feel that a newly reorganized unit district with a new name, school board and tax rate would be the best reorganization option for these communities.”
Following the community meeting, the two school boards each met separately and then together to discuss the study recommendations. There was also a smaller group meeting of the two superintendents, three board members (two from Hillsboro and one from Litchfield), and the community group that led the initial presentation of the study. At this time neither school board is willing to present the concept of reorganization to the voters. Although current law would allow the study group to circulate a petition in each district to place the question on the ballot, this would need the approval of the Regional Superintendent of the Regional Office of Education. Given the fact that neither school board supports a referendum to create a new school district and a new school board, this approval seems remote at best. Hence, MCSSC is not pursuing this option. We had hoped for a better, more forward-looking, and a more cooperative result.
There were many opinions given as to why the voters would not support consolidation but probably the most difficult question raised was something like this: Let’s presume both districts vote to consolidate, create a new school district, and create a new school board. The new school board hires an architect, explores land acquisition, and takes the necessary steps to build a new high school between Hillsboro and Litchfield. This would require a bond issue approved by the voters. The bond issue fails because the voters believe the cost to be prohibitive. What happens next? The answer is: No one can say what the next steps might be. In other words, the voters would have to trust the new school board to make the right decision, much the same way they give that job to the current board members in both districts.
Sadly, the lack of action will have its greatest effect on the current and future children of both districts as well as the economy of Montgomery County as a whole. The county population has dropped consistently over the last few decades as the age of the population has increased. Unless something dramatic happens, the school attendance numbers will continue to drop and by necessity there will be fewer teachers and fewer course options.
The year 2020 will undoubtedly be a watershed year for our schools. The loss of assessed valuation due to Coffeen Power Plant’s closure will cause major impacts to Hillsboro’s already strained curriculum, and the need for new buildings in both towns (a grade school in Litchfield and a new high school building in Hillsboro) will most likely force gut-wrenching, unpopular decisions that will either continue the status quo, or if consolidation were to be considered, provide a unique opportunity to elevate our educational standards. Wouldn’t it be great if voters could be given a voice in deciding whether we want to see our schools reach for higher goals? This could be our window of opportunity to work together as communities to look beyond past practices and do what’s best for education in the future. If we don’t take this opportunity, will we look back in 20 years and say, “we missed our chance in 2020”?
Perhaps the answer is simply for the districts to work together in their current status. To some extent, this has been done to a slight degree in the past and the four county school boards are currently working together to form a Career and Technical Education Consortium. The districts are working to coordinate school calendars and schedules to allow students to have the option of taking courses at all four of the county high schools. Hopefully, the districts will continue to work together, develop trust, and expand the curricula for all of the students in Montgomery County. But would we be better off taking a dramatic step and work for a combined high school? Could we find it in our collective hearts to dismiss our past competition between our towns, and instead work together for a higher common good? The school boards have indicated the communities do not support a vote on consolidation. One can effectively argue the communities have not had an adequate opportunity to express their opinions. A relatively easy option is for both districts to place a non-binding advisory referendum on the ballot asking if the school boards should continue formal discussions of consolidation. This option would give the voters the ability to send a clear message to the school boards, one way or the other. At this time, neither school district supports this option.
For those of you with children in our county’s public schools the next best step might be to run for school board or support candidates who support a larger, more efficient district with more curriculum choices for students of all abilities. The next school board election is April 6, 2021. Candidates must file a petition to be placed on the ballot. Information is available from the Montgomery County Clerk, Sandy Leitheiser, 217-532-9530 and via email at email@example.com.
There are some funds left over which were donated for the study. Since all of the county school districts have created the District Career and Technical Education Consortium, the remainder of those funds will be given to the districts to further their cooperative efforts.