More shuttered schools, consolidations ahead

More shuttered schools, consolidations ahead

In another few weeks, the only thing left of Atwood-Hammond High School will be a pile of souvenir bricks.

On Aug. 29, students began attending Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond High School under the newly configured Arthur school district.

"It's unfortunate it's come to this," Kenny Schwengel, superintendent of the now-dissolved Atwood-Hammond district, said of seeing the school — a center of activity in the small, close-knit Atwood community since 1918 — razed. "It's just the time we live in."

But Schwengel, who now leads the combined district, quickly points out that it not only will be more financially viable but also will provide greater educational opportunities for students.

"Finances played a big part," Schwengel said. "But ultimately, it came down to wanting to create more opportunities for kids. They deserved more, and now they'll be better prepared for college or the workforce or whatever their future might hold."

This time next year, the school landscape in East Central Illinois could look even more different if voters in the Catlin and Jamaica districts approve a consolidation proposal in the November election.

School officials across the region say it's bound to change even more dramatically — possibly with more schools being shuttered, demolished or used for other purposes — if state funding for education continues down the same unreliable path it has been heading.

"Legislators are never going to mandate consolidation," said Monticello schools chief Vic Zimmerman, who reached out to neighboring districts in the spring to gauge interest in sharing buildings and instructional resources. "They can never come up with a way to do it without making everybody mad."

But Zimmerman pointed out that between more unfunded mandates and state budgets that continue to slash education funding, "they're going to squeeze districts to the point where they're left without any other options."

"I think the state is trying to force consolidation through the back door," added Bill Mulvaney, superintendent of both the Armstrong Township High School and Armstrong-Ellis grade school districts. "By not giving us funding and prorating state aid, they are going to bleed everyone to death until they're forced to look at some kind of reorganization. I think every superintendent in our area has that on their mind."

With 858 school districts in Illinois, many see a need for reducing that number and by doing so, reducing administrative and overhead expenses and redirecting that funding into classrooms.

Mandatory consolidation has been proposed several times in recent years, most recently when Gov. Pat Quinn called for a mass reorganization in his 2011 budget address. He suggested cutting the number of districts, then at 868, to around 300. That, he said, would save as much as $100 million and alleviate budget constraints.

However, the next year, the Classrooms First Commission, headed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, found that plan wouldn't yield the expected savings. The price tag for consolidating high school-only and elementary-only districts was estimated at $3.7 billion over four years due to reorganization incentives allowed under current law.

Instead of supporting a statewide overhaul, the commission suggested a number of other money-saving ideas — among them: making voluntary reorganization easier for local districts and encouraging them to share services.

Three recommendations — to allow non-contiguous but compact districts to reorganize, if contiguous districts reject reorganization; districts with an enrollment under 750 to dissolve with or without a referendum; and a delay in a reorganization's effective date if a school construction grant is pending — were signed into law in 2013.

While state education officials believe reorganization should be decided at the local level, "it's something we want local communities to continue looking at," spokeswoman Amanda Simhauser said.

"There are financial benefits," she said. But "from the state board's perspective, the focus should be improving education and making sure that students have equivalent opportunities and access to high-quality teachers, regardless of their zip code."

Catlin and Jamaica

For years, both districts have struggled with declining enrollments and revenues due to downturns in the economy, subsequent population losses and decreases in property taxes, state funding, as well as ever-increasing expenses.

After discussing a number of reorganization options with each other and other southern Vermilion County districts off and on for nearly two decades, the two — which have had a successful sports co-op for years — decided to study consolidation.

If the referendum passes, the newly combined Salt Fork district would take effect on July 1. Starting in August, sixth- through eighth-graders would attend the south campus (Jamaica High) and high school students would attend the north campus (Catlin High).

Both communities would retain their elementary schools.

"With a combined district, we'll be able to offer our kids a lot more than we can today," said Catlin school board president Jeff Fauver, who along with Jamaica school board member Jeff Carder co-chaired the Committee of Ten, which spent the last several months crafting a consolidation plan and preparing to put the proposal on the ballot.

Projections show a combined enrollment of 892, with 280 or 290 at the high school the first year.

"Currently, both schools are down to one math teacher and science teacher," Fauver said. "That's worked well for us. But the situation we have today isn't an optimal situation."

Officials see a potential savings by restructuring administration — there would be one superintendent instead of two, a preK-8 principal at the south campus and a preK-5 principal at the north campus — and eliminating 81/2 teaching positions, among other things.

If the referendum fails, officials say the individual districts will be forced to consider hefty tax referendums and eliminating advanced courses not required for a diploma and sports. And if reserve funds are depleted, they will be forced to consider deactivating the high schools or dissolving the districts.

This isn't the districts' first attempt at consolidation. In 1991, they, along with Oakwood, put a referendum on the ballot. It failed by a 3-1 margin in all three districts.

"Before, there was always the belief that things will get better, and the state will come through," Fauver said. "Now ... people recognize that at least in the foreseeable future, it isn't going to get any better."

Westville and G-RF

Two likely partners are neighboring Westville and Georgetown-Ridge Farm. Both districts, along with Oakwood, began investigating a south county high school with Catlin and Jamaica last year.

Catlin and Jamaica pulled out of the talks, saying that effort would require five years if it started immediately — time their districts didn't have. They also pointed out that with an estimated price tag of $50 million, the project would require significant state construction dollars, which aren't available.

Westville and G-RF moved forward with their own discussions. After a survey of both communities showed a majority of respondents were interested in continuing them, officials met with a state board of education representative to review reorganization options and requested funding for a feasibility study.

"This fall, we plan to get back together and talk about our options," said Westville schools Chief Jim Owens, who believes the districts are "slowly" heading toward some type of merger. However, "I think there will be intermediate steps before we get to a full consolidation.

"We don't need to do anything right now," Owens said, adding Westville is financially stable despite having been shorted around $1 million a year in state funding, which makes up about 70 percent of the district's operating revenues, and seeing a decrease in property tax revenues. "But we're trying to be proactive and plan for the future, so we're not caught in a situation where we're forced to do something that we're not ready for."

G-RF officials also believe it's prudent to look ahead, even though the district is in better financial shape than it was two years ago when it faced a $1.1 million deficit. To survive, Superintendent Jean Neal said, it closed Ridge Farm Elementary, moved her district offices, reduced support staff, increased the tax rate and negotiated a two-year hard freeze with staff. Last year, it issued $1 million in working cash bonds.

"We systematically reduced expenses without impacting our educational programming," said Neal, pointing out the district ended the last fiscal year with a $21,313 surplus and is anticipating a $68,116 surplus this fiscal year.

"It's going to take a period of time to rebuild our funds," Neal said. "At the same time, funding is still so uncertain ... If the state continues to finance us in the way that they have been, pooling resources will be something that districts in our area will need to do."

While Westville's enrollment has stayed around 1,300 and was expected to increase slightly this year, G-RF's has been declining, Neal said. In the last nine years, it's lost nearly 200 students, bringing enrollment to 1,097 last year.

While both districts have strong elementary programs, the superintendents believe some type of merger could benefit high school and even junior high students.

"We would have a combined high school of 700. That would allow us to do some really neat things," Owens said, adding it could mean those students have access to advanced placement English, anatomy and physiology, health occupations, computer maintenance and extracurricular activities such as Junior ROTC, Future Farmers of America and show choir.

Owens also hopes all of the south county districts continue looking at a combined school idea, something that was recommended back in 1967.

"Could we get together economically and offer more programs to our kids? I really think that's the answer for our high schools, to offer the quality programs for our kids so they can compete with the kids from the (Chicago) suburbs and the kids from Champaign."

Piatt schools

On Nov. 4, Monticello voters will have their own ballot questions to answer. One asks for approval to issue bonds to build a new high school (estimated at $35 million) and convert the existing school into a districtwide elementary ($5 million). The second, which will be put to all county voters, asks for a 1 percent sales tax to help fund building needs for Piatt schools.

Monticello High's current enrollment is about 500. But if a new high school is approved, Zimmerman said it would be built for 600 students.

"We would also ask the architects to make sure the design includes simple ways to add on classrooms in the future, if needed. It makes good sense," said Zimmerman, whose district's enrollment of around 1,600 and finances remain steady.

But he's open to the possibility of sharing resources with nearby Bement, Cerro Gordo and other districts that are willing.

"The state of Illinois is always encouraging districts to look for opportunities to work together," Zimmerman said. "We're always open to cooperating if it's something that will be in everyone's best interest."

A merger isn't something Bement is entertaining now, Superintendent Sheila Greenwood said, despite a 2013 feasibility study recommending the district deactivate its high school and send students to a nearby school — most likely Cerro Gordo.

"The board voted unanimously to keep its school district (intact)," she said. "That's what our community supports."

Bement High's enrollment dropped from about 400 in 2006 to around 110 now. The school can't afford to hire a full-time consumer science teacher and because it wasn't able to find a part-timer, it couldn't offer the class this year.

"It's not the end of the program," Greenwood said. "We'll try again next year and explore all options, including sharing."

Both Bement and Cerro Gordo were able to bring back programs, thanks to a teacher-sharing program now in its third year. Bement hadn't offered agriculture classes since the early '90s, and Cerro Gordo hadn't provided a full-fledged industrial technology course since 2003, when a teacher left.

Cerro Gordo Superintendent Brett Robinson sees even more opportunities for students, if the schools combined. The combined enrollment would be around 300.

School officials say they understand why any type of merger is so loathsome to some. People are concerned about property taxes, transportation and whether a cost-savings in operations will actually be realized. Mostly, they fear losing their community school.

"It's their identity," said Mary Ann Manos, district superintendent of Villa Grove. The high school is starting the second year of a sports co-op with Heritage, and the two are also partnering on a first academic joint venture — a dual-credit psychology course.

"They see a reflection of themselves and their families and their community's history in their school, and losing it would be a tremendous loss to their community."

District dropoff

In each of the past three decades, the number of school districts statewide has declined gradually. But many fear the plummet will be much more severe in the coming years.

Year K-12 Total
1984-85 448 1,006
1994-95 410 916
2004-05 399 882
2014-15 385 858
 

 

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