Panel starts work on 'extensive list' of merger issues

SIDELL — A special panel is meeting Saturday to begin crafting a petition and planning for consolidating the Catlin and Jamaica school districts.

"I think time is of the essence with the declining assessed valuation of property and state aid," Catlin school board President Jeff Fauver said of the need for a merger, which the two districts have studied and discussed off and on for nearly two decades. "There are benefits for the students, taxpayers and some efficiencies that should result in savings to the districts."

Fauver and Jamaica school board member Jeff Carder are co-chairing the Committee of Ten, the panel that's charged with developing the plan that lays out key elements of the new district, including the location of students, transportation plan, curriculum, general staffing and property tax levy.

The panel is made up of five representatives from each district. Other members: Joe Hageman, a Catlin teacher and president of the teachers' union; Karen Huchel, a retired Catlin teacher; Bob Wright and Fred Rhinehart, Catlin district residents; Ron Taylor, a Jamaica board member; Dawn Eakle and Jeff Ford, Jamaica teachers; and Brian Lane, a Jamaica district resident.

The meeting will start at 9 a.m. at the Jamaica school library, 7087 N 600 E Road, Sidell. It is open to the public.

Members will discuss the panel's role, the consolidation petition, facility use and placement of students, among other things. They also will tour Jamaica's facilities at 11 a.m. and Catlin's at 12:30 p.m.

"It's an extensive list," Jamaica schools Superintendent Phillip Harrison said of the panel's tasks. He and Catlin schools Superintendent Gary Lewis will be on hand to answer questions.

"The biggest issue is where the students are going to go to school," Harrison continued. "Once that's done, it's figuring out how to get them to the schools, which is the transportation plan. Then, what are the kids going to learn when they get there, which is the curriculum."

Harrison said the panel plans to form subcommittees "to dig into bigger pieces of the puzzle," such as curriculum and facilities.

"The more expertise you draw on and the more people you have involved, the more people will be committed to the whole process," he said.

The two districts have studied a number of reorganization options with a number of districts — including Oakwood and Westville — off and on as their revenue and enrollments have declined. The two districts have had an athletic co-op for a number of years, and officials said they want to build on that successful partnership to enhance educational opportunities as well as cut costs.

Catlin currently has 522 students, including 166 high school students and 76 junior high students, Lewis said. Jamaica's enrollment stands at 375, including 115 high school students and 90 or so junior high students, Harrison said.

Tentative plans call for combining junior high students in one existing building within the districts and high school students in another. Elementary school students would continue to attend in their current building.

"Our goal is to put this on the fall ballot," Fauver said of a referendum.

To do that, the petition must be approved by both boards and sent to the Vermilion County Regional Office of Education by the first week of May.

A majority of voters in each district would have to approve the referendum for it to pass.

If the proposal fails, another petition can't be filed for another two years unless it is substantially different or one of the two districts is placed on the Illinois State Board of Education's academic or financial watch lists, according to state board officials.

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