To Combine Or Not To Combine

Panhandle, Morrisonville Discuss Options

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Like a play, the joint board meeting between the Morrisonville and Panhandle school districts on Aug. 4, was split into two acts. 

Act one focused on what the schools are doing this year to reopen, plus talk of sharing resources, from staff to transportation to knowledge.

Act two was centered on the future and whether the two districts will ever combine, be it by consolidation, which most recently failed in 2014, or by deactivation, which a Morrisonville board member brought up as another possibility.

With six members of the Morrisonville board present and all seven Panhandle members on hand, along with audience of ten or so, the two superintendents ran through what their districts were doing to start the school year.

Morrisonville Superintendent Dave Meister said that the Morrisonville plan mirrors Panhandles plan, with some changes, including the use of the online curriculum Edgenuity. Meister said that one of the biggest complaints from parents regarding the end of the 2019-20 school year was lack of a unified plan, which he believed would be resolved with the use of the program.

Meister said that with two-thirds of parents responding, 80 percent of Morrisonville students had chosen the in person learning option, but he believed that there would probably be more remote learning done this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Panhandle Superintendent Aaron Hopper said that their numbers were similar to Morrisonville’s with 75 percent selecting in person learning, with about 70 percent of parents responding.

Panhandle will be using the Clever distance learning curriculum, along with team teaching, white boards and WebEx, a program similar to Zoom that allows lessons to be recorded and played back at a later time.

Both superintendents said that their schools are planning on spreading out lunch plans, both in terms of time and distance, with Lincolnwood using the cafeteria and gyms if necessary.

Hopper said that there is a tendency to focus on the negatives with the changes this year, but he believed there were a lot of opportunities to change the way students learn as well. 

He mentioned the missions of both schools, which are very similar, and said that the focus needs to be on those missions and providing lifelong learning opportunities for the students in the districts.

Meister said that every cloud has a silver lining and that the silver lining to the pandemic is that it’s forced schools to rethink what they are doing. He said that schools need to find better ways to educate and look at the bigger picture of education for communities as a whole.

After the review of the district plans, Hopper and Meister discussed a memo of understanding, which would allow the districts to share resources. Hopper said the memo could pertain to sharing of resources in terms of staffing or a specialized need, such as transportation, bus drivers or substitute teachers.

Panhandle board member Dana Pitchford asked how teachers at each school are going to handle teaching both in person and on-line. Hopper said that Panhandle is looking at team teaching or configuring classes in a way that would allow one teacher to just focus on on-line students, if that need was evident. He added that the district will also be using other staff, such as paraprofessionals and Title I teachers to aid the online process.

Meister said that like Panhandle, Morrisonville is going with a shortened school day for students, but teachers will have the same school day. The extra hours without students will be used as “office hours” for the teachers for an opportunity to help those remote learning students who need it.

Morrisonville board member Dale Brockamp asked if teachers or students get sick, at what point will schools have to shut down? Meiser said that issue may be taken out of their hands and the school could be shutdown from anywhere from two to ten days if one student gets sick. He said that the school has a plan for what happens, but the Christian County Health Department may be making the decisions if there are issues.

Hopper said that he has been working with a team from the Montgomery County Health Department and area doctors regarding the issue and step one is to notify that team if a student is affected.  He said that Panhandle has a plan for continuing school in the event of minimal students becoming ill, but there are always challenges.

Brockamp also asked about schools conducting COVID-19 testing. Meister said that they had no plans of doing testing and were advised by attorneys not to do so. He added that the district has to be ready to do what is best for kids, even if it is unpopular.

Hopper added that the district’s nurse had developed a protocol for students, in concert with other school nurses in the area, which would be given to parents in the district.

Panhandle board member Brett Slightom asked if students become ill, not from COVID, but from something like a stomach ache, if they can utilize the remote learning, then come back when they are healthy again. Hopper said they could and as long as they were fever free for 24 hours, they were able to return.

Hopper also noted that Panhandle would not be doing perfect attendance awards this year, in an effort to encourage sick students to remain at home.

Hopper would focus on some of the curriculum developments for Panhandle is the next segment of the meeting, focusing on some of the additional ag classes at Lincolnwood and vocational  opportunities at other Montgomery County Schools. 

Hopper said Lincolnwood students had 98 options for class schedules when the school year starts due to the additional curriculum choices. He said that the school will offer three dual credit classes in agriculture, with the ability to add four more in the future.

Hopper added that there are also opportunities for building trade and welding programs at Litchfield, the CNA program online and food service programs at Nokomis. He said that the district is also working with Lincoln Land to create an “Ag Academy” by 2020-2021, which would give students both dual credit ag classes and Lincoln Land Community College credit.

The district is also looking to partner with area agriculture businesses to promote vocational learning and provide education and employment opportunities for Lincolnwood students.

Morrisonville board member Ed Goebel asked how much participation Lincolnwood gets from these vocational education opportunities. Hopper said that participation is usually good, with eight to ten students a year utilizing those opportunities. Meister said that participation is less at Morrisonville, with only two or three per year venturing to other campuses for vocational education.

Morrisonville board member Gerald Goebel asked about the possibility of students from both schools utilizing expertise of teachers from the other school. Meister said that electives are always dependent on numbers and that the districts need to look at class schedules, alignment of curriculum and cross teaching between the districts to make that suggestion come to fruition.

In regards to future extracurricular opportunities, the board briefly discussed current athletic co-ops and the impact of the COVID-19 precautions on sports this year. Hopper said that Josh Stone was currently working on redesigning the schedules, due to the challenges of the requirements.

Act Two

About halfway through the 90 minute meeting, the discussion turned to the two schools not just sharing resources, but joining together, an option that had been mentioned several times in the last ten years.

In July 2011, the Panhandle and Morrisonville school boards said yes to a proposed consolidation plan that would have also included Pawnee, but the Pawnee School Board voted against the plan.

In June 2012, the Panhandle board voted against a plan to consolidate with Morrisonville and Nokomis, due in large part to the distance between Nokomis and Farmersville, whose high school and junior high students attend Lincolnwood High School in Raymond.

In 2014, a proposition to consolidate the two districts passed by a wide margin with Panhandle voters, with 775 voting yes and 216 voting no. In the Morrisonville School District, the measure faced more opposition and failed by less than 100 votes - 364 yes, 457 no.

Morrisonville board member Bobbie Harker sparked the conversation, which she said had been a major concern of hers. She said she believed that the Morrisonville district was producing students who were college ready, but not students who were employable in vocational positions after high school graduation.

Harker also stated her concern over transportation issues, saying she felt like that students were at risk driving themselves back and forth to practices at other schools.

She added that she did not believe that Morrisonville was offering enough opportunities for its students and would like to see something done not in the future, but yesterday. As she finished, she asked Panhandle board members if they were looking at Morrisonville as an option and if that was enough of a gain or if they were looking to join with other districts.

Panhandle Board member Dana Pitchford, who was heavily involved in the 2014 consolidation committee of ten, said she was for the two schools combining, but said she was not willing to take a leadership position for the idea due to the negative experience of 2014 and her current mindset. She added that a consolidation with Morrisonville might be a small band aid, but there was no obvious negative. Pitchford also said that she believed that Panhandle families weren’t in favor of being absorbed by a larger district, like Hillsboro or Litchfield.

Harker asked if the Panhandle board members had discussed deactivation, with Hopper saying that it had not been discussed at length. Harker said she believed that deactivation would be best for Morrisonville High School and that students at Morrisonville need more opportunities. Harker, who works at Taylorville Junior High School, said that her children don’t go to school in Morrisonville, but she believed that there weren’t enough opportunities for kids at Morrisonville to determine if they are capable of going to college or straight into the workforce.

Harker also said that she believed one of the reasons the consolidation failed in Morrisonville last time was because there was no guarantee that they would have equal board representation. She said deactivation allows each district to keep their board and it would ensure that Morrisonville would not have to close any buildings, another concern of voters.

Pitchford asked what the process was for deactivation. Hopper said that it still requires a vote, with Meister adding that he believed that the incentives from the state for deactivation were not as great in comparison to that of consolidation.

Ed Goebel said that one of Morrisonville’s concerns is closing buildings and he believed that deactivation may allow both boards to be more efficient. He added that he believed that combining the schools wasn’t a question of whether it should be done, but how it should be done.

Gerald Goebel also expressed support of combining the two districts in some fashion, saying that it would make all communities more attractive to those considering a move. He also asked about how the tax dollars would be split between the districts.

Meister said that the superintendents would determine the financial split. Slightom asked if the districts deactivate now and get partial incentives from the state, then consolidate later, would they get full incentives? Meister said he would have to look into that.

Ed Goebel said that enthusiasm for combining the two districts had grown in Morrisonville earlier this year, before COVID-19 sapped the movement of some of its zeal. He asked Chelsea Dunkirk, who posted on social media inquiring about the possibility of consolidation, to share some of her thoughts.

Dunkirk said that no consolidation is ever 100 percent perfect, but she believed that many in Morrisonville were ready to revisit the idea and push forward to make it a reality, adding that no one wants the state to come in and push for a consolidation not of the communities’ chosing.

Dunkirk said that her family wants that small town feel that Morrisonville and Panhandle offer, saying that a nephew attends Edwardsville High School and that his parents don’t know any of his teachers or many of the families that attend the school. She added that she likes that she is able to contact a teacher if one of her children is having a problem at school.

Dunkirk said that her social media post received a lot of positive feedback from both communities, which she feels are more closely connected than ever due to sports co-ops at the high school and junior high level. She admitted that transportation concerns could be a factor, but the fact that the students would receive a better education far outweighed those concerns.

Hopper said that he believed the districts need to take advantage of positives from both districts and that the focus should remain on academic improvement, saying that issues with sports co-ops would solve themselves if that happened. There had been significant discussion at Panhandle board meetings regarding sports co-ops over the last few months, but little discussion of athletics at Tuesday’s meeting, a fact Pitchford commended.

Board member Scott Cowdrey said that one of his problems with consolidation was that the two boards who set the gears in motion would not necessarily be part of the new consolidated district, which would be voted on by the public. Ed Goebel said that he believed that was one of Morrisonville voters’ fears too and that deactivation might solve that problem, since both boards would remain.

Panhandle board member Terri Payne asked about staffing if deactivation occurs and whether teachers at one district were required to be hired at the other. According to ISBE information, any tenured teacher transferred as a result of the deactivation must be treated in the same manner as if the teacher had been its employee during the time employed by the sending district. The same parameters apply to educational support personnel.

As discussion wound down, Meister suggested that the two superintendents build scenarios, including incentives, to present to their boards at a future date, with Hopper suggesting the September meeting. Hopper said he would also reach out to ROE #3 Superintendent of Schools Julie Wollerman, who would have to be involved in any consolidation or deactivation plans.

In closing, the superintendents asked if anyone in the audience would like to speak, with Panhandle parent Darrin Daugherty taking the opportunity.

Daugherty said that he had been able to experience the connection between Morrisonville and Panhandle through his son’s play on the junior high co-op sports teams. He said that both he and his son have developed great friendships with parents and students from Morrisonville.

“I feel like the kids would vote for it in a second,” Daugherty said of the consolidation of the two districts. “It’s the others that need to adapt.”

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