Spring votes unlikely for southern Vermilion districts

Spring votes unlikely for southern Vermilion districts

Most school officials in southern Vermilion County say they are keeping all their options open regarding a possible reorganization of their districts, but no changes are likely to appear on the spring 2014 ballots.

Cheryl Reifsteck, the regional superintendent of Vermilion County schools, said the deadlines to put a school consolidation or academic cooperative referendum on the spring ballot are fast approaching, and she is not aware of any reorganization petitions on their way to her office.

The topic of combining some or all or the southern Vermilion County school districts has been discussed since at least the 1960s.

But recently, shrinking enrollments and reduced state aid — a critical revenue source — have led school officials in the Catlin, Oakwood, Jamaica, Westville and Georgetown-Ridge Farm districts to talk about the possibility of reorganizing their districts before financial hardships get so extreme that they are unable to pay their bills and state officials have to step in and take control.

No one wants a situation where the Illinois State Board of Education has to decide if the schools in the district will stay open, or if the students will be sent to another district, Reifsteck said. Local school boards and local voters should make those decisions.

The five superintendents and representatives from the five school boards have met to discuss reorganizations once, in May; there are no current plans for another five-district meeting. But the subject has been raised at recent school board meetings, and Reifsteck said that she is being contacted by school officials with questions about reorganization.

There are three basic options for school reorganization — consolidation, cooperative and deactivation:

— Consolidation: Two or more districts merge together into a district with central management and a single school board.

— Cooperative: Two or more schools or districts merge their students together, but the original school boards remain and jointly operate the merged school or district.

— Deactivation: A school board closes one or more of its schools and then pays tuition for its students to attend a nearby district's school. School board members from the deactivated district do not have voting rights at the district where the students then attend school.

Decision time in Catlin

In August, Catlin school board President Jeff Fauver said the board was still open to all options, but that the top three that Catlin school officials were considering:

— Consolidating with the neighboring Jamaica district.

— Forming a cooperative high school with Jamaica.

— Or deactivating Catlin High School and paying tuition for its students to attend nearby Westville High School.

Catlin Superintendent Gary Lewis has said that, according to his financial projections, if the Catlin district stays on its current path, it will be out of funds after the 2016-17 school year. He said the district either needs to find new revenues, make draconian cuts or combine with another district to reduce expenses.

"A two-district cooperative high school is not the long-term solution for us," Lewis said. "But it would be an answer until the next step needs to happen."

'Cool reception'

Westville Superintendent Jim Owens said the five-district meeting in May was hosted by Westville, but that some of the officials gave the idea "a cool reception," and a followup meeting planned for June was canceled.

Still, Owens said he thought the talks "need to happen," and that he was glad to hear that other school officials were open to discussing those issues.

"I know there are no quick fix options to the school funding problems, but the Westville school board is still committed to looking for long-term solutions to increase academic opportunities for kids," Owens said.

The Westville school district has about $6.3 million in reserves, has not had to cut staff for financial reasons for two years, is expanding its business and industrial education programs, and is close to having a 1:1 ratio of computers to students.

Westville school board President Shawn Bennett said he felt that a single south-county high school seems to be the future, but he could not say how far off in the future it is.

G-RF 'house in order'

Georgetown-Ridge Farm school board President Kevin Latoz said the merging of smaller school districts may be inevitable, but he feels that it may be five or six years until the Georgetown-Ridge Farm district has to make hard decisions about it. Latoz said school reorganization will be a topic of discussion at the board's upcoming retreat, but that his emphasis will be on "continuing to get our own house in order."

Georgetown-Ridge Farm Superintendent Jean Neal said school officials and the community have worked hard to improve the district's finances and to provide a quality education for students, and that she wants the district to be viable.

"This type of decision involves the whole community," Neal said. "We have to look at every option for our students. Reduction in school funding has impacted our district and placed an additional burden on the community. In the last year, the district has taken numerous steps to mitigate the loss of revenue and continues to examine ways to serve our students at the current funding levels."

Shrinking Jamaica

Jamaica Superintendent Phil Harrison has some experience with large districts. He spent three years as assistant principal and five years as principal of South Vermillion High School in Indiana and said the Indiana General Assembly started pushing school districts to consolidate back in the 1960s.

In Illinois, general state aid is partially determined by the average daily attendance in the district. The enrollment in the Jamaica district has dropped from 534 students in 1999 to 383 students in 2013.

Fewer students means less state money, and the state has been reducing the amount of general state aid even further in recent years by prorating the amounts it gives to districts — providing about 89 percent of what was expected last year and this year, and hinting that it might drop to as low as 80 percent next year.

Harrison said that even as general state aid revenues are going down, district expenses are rising. About 80 percent of the Jamaica district's budget is in the education fund, and about 80 percent of the education fund goes to salaries and benefits.

The Jamaica district has eliminated teaching and support jobs, cut summer hours for maintenance staff, and is striving to manage its resources better and longer.

"We are a bare-bones district right now," Harrison said. "There is no more fat to trim. Any further cuts would be an amputation."

While a total reorganization of the five districts is a possibility, Harrison said that unless the state steps in with a mandate or with money to build a central school, it will happen over time and in increments. He said his first choice would be some sort of merging with the Catlin district.

"Jamaica has had an athletic cooperative with Catlin for the past 18 years," Harrison said. "Our kids interact well. They go to each other's homecoming dances. The districts are located close to each other, and we have an existing relationship. Can we make that happen academically as well ?"

'No one magic answer'

Karen Perry is starting her second year as superintendent of the Oakwood school district. She has worked in the Mokena, Sparta, Collinsville and Decatur districts as a math teacher and as a principal, and has worked in small and large districts.

"I have seen amazing things happen in small districts," Perry said. "There is more of a family environment, teachers spend more one-on-one time with students, and kids don't get lost in the crowd. But there are more educational opportunities for students in larger districts. There is no one magic answer."

Large districts can have more class offerings, a wider variety of sports and extracurricular events, and a larger tax base, but transportation times for students riding buses can be long, and transportation costs can be huge.

The Oakwood district just completed some building renovation projects, including HVAC work and window replacements at Oakwood High School and Oakwood Junior High School, and some roof repair work.

Oakwood school officials have open minds when it comes to reorganizing with neighboring districts, she said.

"We are open to hearing what others have to say, and we want what is best for the students," Perry said.

Nothing left to cut?

School officials have to make hard decisions in order to meet students' needs with the revenues available.

Last December, the Georgetown-Ridge Farm school board voted to address a $1.1 million deficit in the $10 million district budget by approving a 14.03 percent increase to the property tax levy, and voting to close Ridge Farm Elementary School — one of two grade schools in the district — at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

In addition, the school board closed the unit office and moved the superintendent's office into Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School, eliminated most bus routes within Georgetown so that fewer students ride buses and fewer buses are needed, froze the salaries of school administrators for three years, negotiated a contract with the Georgetown-Ridge Farm Education Association that includes a two-year salary freeze for employees, changed the health insurance plan to give the district some cost savings, and eliminated the equivalent of 34.5 full-time positions — although some of them have since been reinstated.

The Georgetown-Ridge Farm district's 2013-14 budget is balanced.

But districts can reach a point where no more substantial cuts can be made, and the only way to address budget deficits is to significantly raise property taxes, or to merge with a nearby district.

Putting a consolidation or cooperative referendum on the ballot would require getting a petition to the regional office of education, holding a public hearing, submitting the hearing documents and the regional superintendent's decision to the Illinois State Board of Education, getting a decision from the state superintendent, and getting the proposition to the county clerk's office for inclusion on the ballots.

Reifsteck said the initial petition would almost have to be filed with her office before the end of September in order for all the deadlines to be met.

Deactivating a school or district requires fewer steps — the local school board would pass a resolution to deactivate, the voters in the deactivating district would approve a referendum to that effect, and the school districts must successfully negotiate a tuition agreement.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, the number of individual school districts in Illinois has decreased from 1,008 in 1984 to 870 in 2010 — a reduction of more than 13 percent.

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