Rossville-Alvin looks into cooperative high school

ROSSVILLE — Rossville-Alvin school officials are turning to the experts to learn more about forming and operating a cooperative high school.

Officials with the Paris Union School District 95 and Community Unit School District 4, in Edgar County, will share their experience of forming the Paris Cooperative High School — the only cooperative high school in the state — at a special Rossville-Alvin school board meeting today.

The Rossville-Alvin school board will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. today (Thursday, Sept. 6) at the Olivet Church of the Nazarene, 5054 Olivet Road, Georgetown. The public and officials from the Bismarck-Henning and Hoopeston Area school districts are invited.

"I'm very interested to hear what they have to say," Rossville-Alvin Superintendent Crystal Johnson said, adding the meeting is informational only.

Under a cooperative high school arrangement, two or more contiguous school districts pool their resources to offer combined academic and extracurricular programs at new or existing facilities. Each cooperating district maintains local control of its own elementary and middle or junior high schools, under the direction of its school board and superintendent. Voters in all of the districts elect a cooperative board with representatives from each district to oversee the newly formed school. But first, the boards of each district must approve a resolution putting a referendum on the ballot, and voters must approve it.

Several Vermilion County school districts have explored forming a cooperative high school as a way to enhance curricular and extracurricular opportunities. Jamaica, Catlin and Oakwood school officials are interested in establishing a centrally located school, and Rossville-Alvin pursued the idea with Bismarck-Henning, Hoopeston Area and other north county districts.

In 2005, Rossville-Alvin residents voted to deactivate their high school and send students to Bismarck-Henning and Hoopeston Area schools under a tri-party agreement. The current agreement runs through the end of the school year.

Now faced with rising tuition and other operational costs, declining revenues and the uncertainty of state funding, Rossville-Alvin officials once again are revisiting the cooperative high school idea in their search for the best long-term solution for educating their students.

The Paris Cooperative High School is starting its fourth year, and officials from District 95 (which encompasses Paris proper) and District 4 (which covers an area around Paris) agree the arrangement has been a positive one for residents and the 550 to 600 students.

"It's been fantastic," said District 95 board President Tom Davis, who plans to present information at the meeting along with District 95 Superintendent Connie Sutton, District 4 Superintendent Lorraine Bailey, high school Principal Dave Meister and others.

"We're a unique situation in that we're one community," Davis continued, adding the districts' relationship goes back to the early 1950s when District 4, which didn't have a high school at the time, began sending its students to the District 95 high school.

However, District 4 residents didn't like that they paid tuition but didn't have a say in the governance of the school, Davis said. District 95 officials asked the state if the other district could have representation on their board, but it wasn't possible.

"When the statute for a cooperative high school came along, it seemed like a natural fit for us," Davis said.

Sutton and Bailey said both districts had explored different forms of reorganization over the years. They said voters in both districts overwhelmingly approved the referendum to form the cooperative high school in April 2009.

"We didn't have to sell it to the public. We did have to inform the public, though," Bailey said, adding district leaders held numerous meetings to explain what a cooperative high school is and how it would function.

Leaders also said the partnership is the reason the school was awarded more than $24 million in Illinois Jobs Now funding to build a new high school to replace the current building that's more than 100 years old and outdated. The new building, estimated at $39.5 million, is slated to open in fall 2014.

Davis said the new building may entice the neighboring districts of Chrisman, Shiloh and Kansas to considering joining the co-op or even consolidating with the Paris districts in the future, something his district has entertained.

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