Catlin, Jamaica approve consolidation

Catlin, Jamaica approve consolidation

It's the final year of the Catlin and Jamaica school districts.

Voters on Tuesday approved consolidating the two small, rural Vermilion County districts by a 1,334 to 984 vote.

Now the new Salt Fork school district will take effect on July 1.

And starting in August, sixth- through eighth-graders will attend the south campus (Jamaica High) and high school students will attend the north campus (Catlin High). Both communities will retain their elementary schools.

Unofficial vote totals in Catlin (as of 12:36 a.m. Wednesday) showed that 784, or about 57 percent, approved the merger, while 587, or about 43 percent, did not.

Unofficial vote totals in Jamaica showed that 550, or about 58 percent, voted yes, while 397, or 42 percent, voted no.

"I'm very relieved. It's going to create a district that will offer more curriculum that's being offered in either district," said Jeff Fauver, president of the Catlin school board and co-chair of the Committee of Ten, which put the question on the ballot and developed a consolidation plan to provide students with more educational opportunities that will better prepare them for college and the workforce, and stabilize finances before the district exhausts its reserve funds.

"I'm very excited for the children," added Shelley Darnell, who along with about 30 or 40 other supporters watched the returns come in at the American Legion in Catlin.

"I think it's a great opportunity for them, and I'm ready to jump in and start working," continued Darnell, who not only pushed for the proposal's passage, but, like Fauver, won a seat on the new Salt Fork school board.

Voters also elected Jeff Carder, Ron Taylor, Andrea Van Leer, Seth Smoot and Troy Chew. They edged out two other candidates — Robert E. Wright and Jeff Dodd.

Now the newly elected board must get to work on selecting administrative and teaching staff, as well as other employees; negotiating a contract with a new bargaining unit; approving curriculums for the new middle school and high school; working on a transportation plan; and filling in the rest of the details of the consolidation plan — all before the 2015-16 school year begins.

"The Committee of Ten has done a really good job of creating a framework," Fauver said. "However, we've got work ahead of us. There are policies and procedures that need to be implemented to make the new district effective. That's one of the reasons why we determined the fall time frame instead of the spring (for putting the question to voters). We wanted to give the new board the maximum amount of time to finish the plan."

By approving a consolidation, voters also approved a tax rate for the new district, which, officials said, will be similar to Catlin's current rate of about $5.12 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Under their estimates, the owner of a $100,000 home in Catlin's district will pay about $1,445 in taxes to the new district next year. That's a slight increase over the amount — about $1,433 — they would pay to the Catlin district.

Also under their estimates, the owner of a $100,000 home in Jamaica's district will pay about $1,417 in taxes to the new district next year. That's a slight decrease to the amount — about $1,473 — they would pay to Jamaica, which has a tax rate of about $5.37 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Opponents, led by the Thrive for Better Education Committee, said they believed both boards and the Committee of Ten jumped to the Catlin-Jamaica consolidation without fully researching all of the options and reaching out to other nearby school districts. They also argued that a consolidation would not provide a substantial cost savings or a longterm solution to financial stability.

"After I read everything on it, I just didn't think it was the right thing to do now," said Rene Wakeland, who cast her ballot at Faith Church in Fairmount early Tuesday afternoon. "The buses would be running all of the time. I just didn't see where it would save that much money.

Fellow Fairmount resident Julie Brown said she voted no for sentimental reasons.

"I have a grandson who's a junior at Jamaica, and I would like to see him graduate from Jamaica," she said, adding he would be the fourth generation of Sutton and Browns to do so.

But Casey Funk said voting "yes" was a no-brainer for him.

"I just think it would have benefited them and both school districts," said Funk, a 2013 Catlin High School graduate.

"The districts have had a successful sports coop for the last 20 years," said Funk, a former member of the Salt Fork football and baseball teams. "The kids get along really well together. They would've blended together in (the classroom) really well."

Fellow Catlin resident Eric Lomax said he voted the same way he did in 1991 when a proposal to consolidate Catlin, Jamaica and Oakwood was on the ballot. That referendum failed by a 3-1 margin in all three districts.

"I voted 'yes' 20 years ago," said Lomax, who said the benefits of consolidation — both for students and taxypayers — can be seen just beyond the Illinois-Indiana state line.

"Indiana did it. Look how they're thriving," he said.

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