Westville, G-RF officials studying reorganization

Committees to start process for consolidation talks

GEORGETOWN — School officials from the Westville and Georgetown-Ridge-Farm districts are setting groups to further study reorganization options.

School officials said they want to spend some time informally researching issues related to school mergers and seeking community input before formally creating a committee of 10 from both districts that would make recommendations for the two boards to consider.

"We have an opportunity to take our time with this and to do it right," said Westville School Superintendent Jim Owens said at last week's meeting. "We want to consider this while our districts are thriving, and not after things have changed and we are told that we have to merge."

Declining student enrollments and shrinking revenues from the state — a key financial resource for area districts — are causing many school officials to consider mergers with nearby districts.

In recent months, the superintendents and school board members of the five southern Vermilion County districts have openly said they are interested in exploring various options — including making a single cooperative high school for the Catlin, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Jamaica, Oakwood and Westville districts — that would allow them to combine resources, pool area property tax revenues and improve academic and extracurricular offerings.

Georgetown-Ridge Farm and Westville board members decided to form five committees that will each research an issue: governance, finances, curriculum, extracurricular activities and facilities. Two members from each board and one administrator will serve on each committee, making five committees with five members each.

The committees will meet in November and December in order to collect information on their issues, and to identify key questions regarding those issues.

While the process up to that point is informal, the formation of the committee of 10 would begin the formal portion of the process as outlined by the Illinois School Code.

The committee of 10 would take the data already collected, study the issues further and then make recommendations to the two boards. Each board would then vote on the recommendations.

The next steps would be filing a petition to reorganize with the regional superintendent of Vermilion County Schools, Cheryl Reifsteck. She would hold public hearings, study the data, and then make a recommendation on the reorganization to the state superintendent. If approved by the state, the issue would be put before the voters of both districts in a referendum on the ballot. If approved by voters, the reorganization would occur.

Although school officials did not set a target date, Westville board President Shawn Bennett said he would like to see the process completed before the next regular school board election in April 2015. He said that the process would have better continuity if the same board members worked on it from beginning to completion.

Members from both boards agreed that if a reorganization of the districts does not look feasible or is not in the best interests of the students, they would walk away from the talks with no hard feelings.

There were two people in the audience at Wednesday's meeting.

Tim Jenkins, who lives in the Westville school district, said that although few questions were answered, he was glad to see the two boards talking with each other. He thought that the school officials needed a lot of input from their communities before making any decisions on consolidating their districts.

Greg Petticrew, who also lives in the Westville school district, said that he felt the school officials were rushing into the process, before they knew how much a school reorganization would cost.

"If we can't afford it, then why go any farther with the talks ?" Petticrew said.

Georgetown-Ridge Farm School Superintendent Jeal Neal said that she was pleased with the meeting.

"I feel good about the process we have begun," Neal said. "I look forward to working with both boards to develop a plan that will benefit all our students."

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