Residents of Brownstown and St. Elmo had two opportunities last week to learn about the proposed consolidation of their school districts.
They also had the chance to ask questions about the proposed consolidation, which will go before the voters on April 7.
Each of the two informational meetings – on Wednesday in Brownstown and on Thursday in St. Elmo – drew about 90 people.
And while most of the questions posed at the two meetings seemed to be answered satisfactorily, there were some attendees – particularly at the Brownstown meeting – who persistently said they want guarantees on how the new district will be operated.
At both meetings, St. Elmo Superintendent Deb Philpot emphasized that the Committee of Ten that has been studying the consolidation issue for about two years cannot make any guarantees on such things as staffing of both certified and non-certified personnel, and which buildings in each community would be used by which students.
By law, Philpot said, the Committee of Ten does not have the power to make most of the final decisions regarding the newly formed district – those decisions can only be made by the new board of education that is elected after the two districts are joined.
“We don’t have all of the answers,” Philpot said. “We give projections and visions, and you people have to decide in April if you want to go with this.”
Both meetings had Philpot and Brownstown Superintendent Doug Slover presenting a Power Point presentation that covered such issues as finances, class sizes and extracurricular activities.
Philpot and Slover said that each district is in good financial condition right now, but research and projections show that that would change in the not-too-distant future. A study performed by professors from Eastern Illinois University projects Brownstown to have a negative-balance operating fund by 2012, and for St. Elmo’s balances to decrease by 28 percent in the next three years.
Philpot said that the state is encouraging smaller districts to consolidate, “because it believes that is a more-efficient and more-effective way for schools to operate,” and is offering considerable incentives to that end. Calling the consolidation figures “conservative,” Philpot said the state incentives and proposed savings for the newly formed district would total a little more than $3 million.
Slover said the two districts would also be reducing their expenses for sports teams, seeing savings in such areas as coaches’ salaries and non-reimbursable travel expenses. The two districts currently have cooperative teams for eight sports, not including golf, which has been offered in the past.
“Extracurricular costs would be cut roughly 40 percent,” Slover said, noting that consolidation would also allow for more-competitive squads. As it stands now, he said, both districts struggle with having enough participants for some teams.
One of the key issues for the Committee of Ten has been enhancement of the curriculum at all grade levels, and particularly at the high school level.
“Courses could be added with the same number of teachers,” Slover said, noting that the study shows the addition of up to five math classes, two or three science classes and three more social studies classes.
The consolidation could also allow for more classes in agricultural education, he said, and foreign language classes could be enhanced from two or three years to four years.
Slover said that the two districts currently share a lot of classes, but the downside to that is the loss of instructional time by those students traveling to and from the other district.
Clint Feezel, co-chairman of the Committee of Ten, said he believes that the main reason for the consolidation is the improvement of curriculum.
“Everything we are trying to do is to improve the education for my kids and your kids,” Feezel said.
“We have to provide an education that lets our kids go out and compete with the rest of the kids in the world,” he said, adding that students graduating from high school in Brownstown and St. Elmo who go onto college find out that they are behind those who graduated from larger high schools.
“As it is now, we’re squeezing everything down to where our kids don’t have a choice.
“Not everyone is thrilled about this, but we haven’t found a better mousetrap.”
Cindy Booher, another committee member, agreed with Feezel.
“When I got to college, I was so behind. Because of the limited resources, our children are at a disadvantage.
“We need to give them kind of a step up,” she said.
At Thursday’s meeting, another committee member, Brad Smith, who is a sixth-grade teacher at St. Elmo, said, “There are always challenges in education. One of the challenges is, how do we find a way to best educate our kids.
“Consolidation, as with any merger, takes a leap of faith. We have made every effort to study this objectively, outling risks as well as benefits, so that voters can make an informed choice,” Smith said.
“Both communities are committed to a strong and high-performing school system, and we should be thankful for that. I ask you, respectfully, to be an informed voter,” he said.
“The compelling question throughout has always been, and always will be, is it good for the kids?
“It is our responsibility to provide our students with the best education that is humanly and financially possible. That is our goal.
“And I believe the plan that has been developed is responsible in that way – and offers the opportunity to move St. Elmo and Brownstown districts forward to achieve our goal,” Smith said.
“Please, don’t vote on emotion – there’s too much at stake for our children,” Smith said.
One of the decisions made by the Committee of Ten was having the board members for the newly formed district chosen through an at-large set up, as opposed to having seven subdistricts, with one board member elected from each subdistrict.
That decision was questioned by several attending the meetings, and Dean Buzzard, co-chairman of the committee, explained the group’s logic.
If the district were to go with subdistricts, Buzzard said, the residents of that subdistrict would be able to vote on filling one of the seven seats. With the at-large setup, he said, the residents of the two districts have more of a choice in picking seven board members.
When several Brownstown residents voiced concern about St. Elmo, which has more residents, having up to seven board members, Buzzard and Feezel said that residents can be a valuable part of the selection process by both agreeing to run as candidates and making sure they go to the polls on election day.
Regardless of the board makeup, Feezel said, the members of the new board will be focused on good decisions for all students, instead of trying to give preference to one community over the other.
“If they try to do something that would hurt your kid, they would also be hurting their kids,” Feezel said.
The committee was also asked whether the consolidation would allow the students in the new high school to earn dual (high school and college) credits, which would give them a head start on their post-secondary education.
Philpot and Slover said consolidation would not provide that benefit because the new district, like the Brownstown and St. Elmo districts, are within the Lake Land College District. Lake Land, they said, have more stringent requirements for dual credits than do most other community colleges, including Kaskaskia College.
“There’s nothing we can do about that, and consolidation won’t change that,” Slover said.
The committee was asked several times whether some non-certified staff members would lose their jobs as a result of the consolidation.
“There is always a question whether a new district would employ everybody,” Philpot said.
“We are in tremendous hopes that we can handle this through attrition (retirements),” she said.
“These jobs are union-driven, and we cannot stand here and tell you what those new contracts would be,” Philpot said. “That would be up to the new board.”
The Committee of Ten met on Wednesday evening, with the action including the setting of a second round of informational meetings.
The committee will meet on Feb. 24 to prepare for those meetings, which will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, in the Brownstown Elementary School cafeteria and at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 7, in the St. Elmo Elementary School cafeteria.
At those meetings, Philpot said, the committee hopes to present more detailed financial and curriculum information, as well as the actual wording that will appear on the April 7 ballot.