Looking for help to build school, minds

Looking for help to build school, minds

CATLIN – Three Vermilion County school districts want to join forces to battle shrinking class sizes, aging schools and rising costs.

But school officials in Catlin, Jamaica and Oakwood have their hopes pinned on a construction grant from the state to pay for the construction of a new, centrally located high school.

It would have as many as 640 students, a diverse curriculum, more sports and additional extracurricular activities.

Now, they're waiting for the General Assembly to decide if it can or will help.

The state hasn't handed out new school construction grants for five years.

Whether any money will come this year isn't known, said state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has to announce what his plans are before the Legislature can move forward with school construction funding, Black said.

"Nothing's been proposed. I have no idea whether he will call for a school bond issue," Black said. "It's not a good situation. With this governor, you never know."

He said the General Assembly won't know what will happen until the governor submits a proposal in March.

Black said that the state would need at least $500 million to pay the debt already accrued and the schools that have previously been approved, but some of that could go toward some cooperative high schools.

"Two-thirds of the Legislature is needed (to approve) a bond issue, and without the support of the governor, you're not going to get much support," Black said. "I'm not going to vote for a blind bond issue this year and find out next year that none of the money is going to go to Catlin, Jamaica and Oakwood.

"The governor needs to sit down with a plan and then fund accordingly. If I could do it, I'd already have introduced it. The need is there and we have to wait and see if there is a bond issue," Black said.

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, said there is certainly hope there will be a school construction plan soon.

"Senate Republicans have always pushed for a capital construction plan for school construction ... but you've got to have a responsible plan. And in order to do that, I think it will take both parties and the governor and the legislature working together to do it."

Could it happen in this spring's legislatiave session?

"I think there's greater potential because the needs continue to mount, and everyone is hearing from their constituents," Schuh said.

"The governor is hearing from statewide constituencies, and then each individual member is from their constituents, how important these projects are, so we certainly hope that we're able to accomplish something."

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, D-Evanston, who sponsored past school construction bond legislation that failed, said he anticipates success this year.

"I think the timing is ripe for this," he said. "It will take some effort to bring about a consensus. Just because both chambers are controlled by Democrats and the governor's office is occupied by a Democrat doesn't mean we all sing from the same hymnal.

"But I am confident that in time we'll be able to achieve a consensus on how to meet the state's critical capital needs," Schoenberg said.

Oakwood Superintendent Keven Forney said that because cooperative funding rules have not completely been determined, it would probably work like a consolidated school district.

Forney said each school district would still be taking care of its own debt, with each district funding a certain amount, then they would qualify for a construction grant from the state.

If the state granted the money, Oakwood would have about half of the responsibility for the unfunded debt because it would contribute nearly half of the students.

According to the feasibility study, a new school might cost $20 million, with half being paid for by the grant.

The other $10 million would be split on a per-capita basis among Catlin, Jamaica and Oakwood.

Forney said Oakwood would contribute 300 students to the new high school, with Catlin and Jamaica jointly adding 320 to 340 students.

Catlin Superintendent Guy Banicki said the actual cost hasn't been determined.

"People ask us, 'How much is this going to cost?' We don't know yet. We don't have that answer because the state hasn't made a decision about constructing new schools," Banicki said.

He favors a cooperative because of the efficiency of joining with two other districts.

"We think we could lower the taxes, because of the reduction in staff. There would be fewer principals, fewer teachers, and the overall cost of maintaining the building will be lower," Banicki said.

He said they expect to have several teachers retiring in the next few years, which means no teacher would be fired. Banicki said the three schools currently have six physical education teachers, and that number could be to three or three-and-a-half, and other departments could be reduced.

He said the average class size in Catlin is 12, and a co-op class size would be closer to 20. With more students per class, students could get more specialized classes to prepare for college.

"We could expand our curriculum," Banicki said. "Class sizes are so low, and we're at the point where we just can't have three or four students to a class. We don't have enough students to put into a calculus or a physics class. More educational choices would be provided in a bigger school."

Jamaica Superintendent Mark Janesky said class sizes in his district have been so small for several years that it can no longer justify, or even offer, a wide range of classes that students want. He said a co-op school would be big enough to add several music classes, possibly even double the number of science courses, and the same would be true for other programs.

"We want a co-op mainly for the students," Janesky said. "Some of our students can't get the course offering that could be offered to them. There will be academic advantages with a bigger school. We could be competitive with other schools." Moving toward a cooperative high school is an experiment that no district has ever taken before in Illinois public school history, although efforts are under way in rural southwestern Illinois, and between six school districts in Douglas and Edgar counties.

"A lot of schools are discussing it as a topic for the future," Janesky said.

"Quite a few are waiting for somebody to do it. They want somebody else to be the guinea pig. I think we've studied it enough to know the issues, and when new things happen I don't think it'll surprise us any." Making joint decisions is something Catlin and Jamaica have been doing for 11 years. They formed cooperative sports teams, called the Salt Fork Storm, that have increased unity between the two schools.

"The co-op sports has made this much easier because they've been identified for so long, they've been working together for a long time and getting to know one another," Forney said.

He said discussions about the cooperative agreement will begin early this year, and he hopes to have all the main issues settled before they try to get a referendum.

"With no new funding being put into construction, it's not prudent at this time, but within the next 18 months we're going to make a decision whether its going to go to the ballot or not," Forney said.

Janesky said that, for the time being, it's a waiting game to see if any money is appropriated. "What's it's going to cost to stay the same for the next 30 to 40 years repairing and maintaining what we already have?" Janesky asked. "The cost will be enormous."

Springfield Bureau Chief Kate Clements contributed to this story.

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