Another consolidation vote

Seven years after the proposed consolidation of the Brownstown and St. Elmo school district was voted down, residents of those districts will likely again vote on that issue.
In meetings early last week, each of the school boards in the districts appointed five individuals to a Committee of 10 that will work toward a goal of putting consolidation before voters at the consolidated election in March.
On that committee, Brownstown will be represented by school board President Randy Mason and Vice President Kent Kistler, teacher Michelle Seabaugh, support staff representative Ashley Towler and community representative Clay Chandler.
St. Elmo’s representatives are school board members Shannon Moss and Mindy Healy, teacher Michelle Schaal, support staff representative Mandy Miller and community representative Jake McWhorter.
By Sept. 14, the two districts must present to Regional Superintendent of Schools Julie Wollerman a petition asking that the consolidation issue be put on the March ballot.
That petition will include updated information from the petition that allowed the issue to get on the spring 2009 ballot. At that election, residents of the St. Elmo district overwhelmingly supported consolidation, 622-370, but it was rejected in Brownstown, 373-339.
The petition sent to Wollerman will include such things as a new tax rate for the consolidated district and a decision on how the membership of the new school board will be elected, either at-large or in districts.
The Committee of 10 will also determine who is responsible for each of the district’s bond indebtedness, and it will form recommendations for such things as curriculum and use of facilities in the two districts.
Philpot emphasized that the Committee of 10 will not make rules and set guidelines for a consolidated district.
“This committee is not going to be the governing body for the new district,” she said. “It can make recommendations, but the district would have a new school board that will be the governing body.”
Discussions with residents of the two districts on another consolidation vote began at the end of the last school year, when the districts joined together for informational meetings in each community.
“There are definitely mixed motions,” Brownstown Superintendent of Schools Adam Bussard said. “Some (at the meetings) were in favor of it, some were opposed and some were there to listen to what was said, to get information.”
As was the case for the 2009 vote, public hearings will be held prior to the vote in next spring’s election.
“Finances, obviously, is one of the reasons (to consider consolidation), due to the financial positions that a lot of Illinois school districts are getting themselves into,” Bussard said.
“Every year, we hear horror story after horror story about school funding,” he said.
St. Elmo Superintendent of Schools Deb Philpot agreed when talking about the state’s funding of schools.
“The state is continually depriving us of funding,” Philpot said.
In the past five years, the St. Elmo District had lost about $1 million in state funding. “When your budget is $3.5 million-$4 million, that’s pretty significant,” she said.
Adding to the decrease of state support are decreases in enrollment, which result in decreases in state funding.
The St. Elmo district had 510 students in the 2005-06 school year, Philpot said. The current enrollment is 445.
“That’s a loss in state aid of roughly $390,000,” she said.
Last year, the St. Elmo district had a $140,000 deficit in its education fund, which was attributable to prorated General State Aid and “a loss of categorical funding that the state decided not to pay,” Philpot said.
In addition to funding cuts, the Brownstown district has had to deal with the repayment of state funds after a previous miscalculation by the state resulted in overpayment to the district.
Bussard said the issue of consolidation comes down to a simple point – “What kind of education can we provide?
“People often get caught up in dollars and cents,” he said. “What’s tied to those dollars is the quality of education a district can provide.”
In recent years, the two districts have offered cooperative sports teams, with St. Elmo hosting some teams and Brownstown hosting others.
The co-op effort was started, Philpot said, because “strictly, the numbers were not there” for each district to field competitive teams, or to even field teams at all.
It had gotten to the point, she said, “that we were begging kids to go out for a sport.
“One time, a (baseball) coach was looking for a ninth player” in order to avoid forfeiture.
Last year, Philpot said, her district began charging an athletic fee for students.
“This is not something that the district wanted to do, but state funding does not pay for extracurricular programs, and with them continually cutting funding, we needed to charge to help pay for the programs,” she said.
And the cooperative effort has extended to the classroom.
Brownstown has been sending students to St. Elmo for ag classes in recent years, and is now sending some to St. Elmo for music.
Some St. Elmo students have gone to Brownstown for art classes, and the districts have joined together for family consumer and science classes.
Having cooperative agreements for athletic teams and some classes, Bussard said, “absolutely is the first step in any consolidation.”
Philpot said that even though the two districts can continue to offer classes in areas such as agriculture and music, those students are being cheated, due to the time spent traveling to and from the other school.
“Some either have to leave a class early or get here late,” she said. “With the busing time involved, they are getting two-thirds of normal instruction time.”
Like Bussard, Philpot says that the quality of education that each district can provide is the main issue.
“Just like before (2009), the number of kids in both (high school buildings) is an issue.
By joining the districts, she said, “We could have really nice class sizes and could offer additional subjects. It’s possible that we could add three or four additional English classes in addition to what we offer now.
“We’re equipping them for college, but we’re not able to offer such things as higher-level science, classes that would better prepare them.
In the past eight years, the St. Elmo district has reduced its number of employees by 11 (7½ teacher positions and 3½ support personnel positions), with most of those cuts coming in the past five years, Philpot said.
A lot of those cuts, she said, were made through attrition, when a staff member retired or left for another job.
“I feel that we have a quality educational program now, but we have just one English teacher, and she is a very busy teacher,” Philpot said.
“We pretty much have just one teacher for many of our subjects,” she said. “There is just one physical education teacher and a teacher aide (for both boys and girls) at the high school, and our elementary teachers are now teaching P.E.”
Bussard said, “It’s more than just adding new subjects. Curriculum expansion may just allow more flexibility, offering more than one biology class, so students can take other classes.”
Philpot said that her district’s teachers and support staff have been extremely cooperative as the district fights to keep its finances in good shape.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t turn in a request for equipment or supplies unless it’s something that you really need. It’s an issue of wants versus needs,” Philpot said.
It simply comes down, she said, to what students in the two districts will be able to receive in the classroom.
“We can be here for some time (on our own), but what kind of programs can we continue to offer,” Philpot said.

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