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Photo by Diane Cox
Wood River City Councilman and 2013 East Alton-Wood River High School graduate Scott Miner speaks during the consolidation hearing.
EDWARDSVILLE — Anxious East Alton, Wood River and Hartford residents gathered at the Madison County Administration Building on Thursday, Nov. 13, to have their voices heard at a public hearing in front of Regional Superintendent Dr. Robert Daiber.
Citizens gave their opinions about consolidating East Alton School District No. 13, East Alton-Wood River High School District No. 14 and Wood River-Hartford School District No. 15 into one unified district.
On Oct. 10, the Committee of Ten filed a petition with the Madison County Regional Office Of Education and sent copies of a letter to school board presidents and district superintendents to advise them the petition had been filed per the Illinois state code.
As part of the filing requirements, 15 signatures from each district had to be provided as well as public notice for a hearing. Public notice was displayed in print on Oct. 18, Oct. 25 and Nov. 1. The Regional Office of Education found that the committee met the requirements and the hearing was set to move forward.
Residents were asked to sign in upon entering and to indicate if they wanted to speak. Andrew Russell of Wood River, the committee’s spokesman, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the committee’s findings before citizens were given an opportunity to speak. Russell presented evidence of the schools’ needs and conditions of the new district, evidence about the ability of the proposed district to meet the standards of recognition as provided by the Illinois State Board of Education, consideration of the division of funds and assets and a description of the maximum tax rates the new district would be authorized to levy.
“EA-WR has two elementary feeder districts that operate on different philosophies of education and different curriculums,” Russell said. “The differences in these provide a hindrance on the educational opportunities at our high school level. The current situation does not provide for a pre-k through 12 aligned curriculum for our community children. There is no doubt that a consolidated school district would provide a greater environment for learning at a critical time in our children’s education.”
The Committee of Ten says a consolidated district would offer a wider variety of courses for students because of the demand of a larger student body. In addition to course availability and demand, the larger student body would allow for extended extra-curricular activities and more competitive athletic teams.
“Currently there are three school boards; with consolidation there would be one unified board,” Russell said. “With having one superintendent and one administration for the one district, the buying power and greater volume purchase options increase. The consolidation will lower taxes overall and will help the district become financially stable. The overall curriculum will improve.”
Curriculum being the hot topic for the consolidation, teachers at the high school level are left with the challenges to balance the level of education.
“I have been a teacher for 22 years and I’m also on the Committee of Ten,” EA-WR math teacher Leann Parmentier said. “The curriculum needs to be aligned. I live daily with the result of the nonalignment. Both of the feeder schools have different exposures and different technology. For the sake of consistency, I am in favor of the consolidation.”
While some citizens have their minds made up, some still have questions they’d like to see answered before consolidation is put on the ballot Tuesday, April 7.
“I have been on the East Alton village council for 18 years and I cannot say at this time that I am for consolidation or against consolidation,” Dave Kuehnel said. “I want to see some hard facts that don’t leave the what-if or this might happen possibility. I think a real consolidated district would be to combine Wood River and Roxana districts for curriculum and it would also make our area more competitive in sports. How the debt for each school is handled is another question I’d like more answers to.”
In attendance at the hearing was EA-WR Superintendent Dr. John Pearson, who declined to speak during the hearing but submitted his opinion to AdVantage News.
“I have personally been in favor of merging the three districts for many years. It certainly makes the most sense from a curriculum alignment and governance perspective, with one board setting the direction for all of the children,” Pearson said. “It makes the most sense from a fiscal standpoint, as well, giving the taxpayers a lower tax rate and greater efficiency in terms of staffing, class groupings, course offerings and extracurricular opportunities. From an instructional standpoint — especially in this age of increasing accountability — consolidation makes sense, due to the fact that one board and one unified administration would be able to enact change, reforms, etc. across all grade levels.”
Wood River City Councilman and 2013 EA-WR graduate Scott Miner also spoke at the hearing.
“I feel that our students are at a disadvantage due to the fact that kids from the two feeder schools are being taught different curriculum at different levels,” Miner said. “When they get to the high school, the teachers are struggling to teach the students equally due to the lack of a standardized curriculum across the board. A consolidation of Districts 13, 14, and 15 will allow for a smoother transition into a standard curriculum formed by an elected school board of seven community members, rather than the three separate school boards that we have now. We are putting our students at a disadvantage because we are not adequately preparing our elementary and junior high students for the rigorous curriculum of high school. Consolidation will most surely solve this.”
The different types of technology in the districts pose a problem for teachers at the high school level.
“I have a child in sixth grade at Wood River and they cannot bring a book home to study,” District 15 parent Christina Willeford said. “My child has to use notes to study from for tests because there are not enough books. They use a promethean board in class (interactive whiteboard), whereas East Alton students have their books on electronic tablets. Special education needs to be addressed. If a child barely tests out of special education at one grade level, they’re forced to wait three years to be retested — at that rate, my child will be further behind by the time those three years pass. I’m afraid this will cause my child to want to drop out of school because they’re not being helped. I think consolidation needs to happen.”
East Alton resident and Eastwood office secretary Linda Kuehnel asked if there are ways to align without consolidation.
“I don’t know why the boards cannot gather together and communicate to align the curriculum,” Linda Kuehnel said. “Since we have the tablets at Eastwood, perhaps the books can be sent over to the Wood River schools.”
Along with curriculum as the main topic of consolidation, the question of raising and lowering taxes for residents remains a major concern.
“All funds, debts and assets will become property of the new district,” Russell said. “That is a requirement per the statutes for consolidation, but the maximum tax rates set in the petition are shown in the presentation.”
The Committee of Ten presented the proposed tax rates: education fund, $2.41; operation and building maintenance fund, $0.64; transportation fund, $0.20; health, life and safety fund, $0.10; working cash fund, $0.05; lease fund, $0.10.
Russell said there were a few areas that couldn’t be assigned an exact tax rate.
“The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund contributions, which will increase due to market conditions, benefit package changes and the possibility of Social Security payment increases are the areas we cannot give a hard number on because they cannot be predicted today,” Russell said. “Even with these variables taken into consideration, we are projecting that the overall tax rate for the entire geographic region for the unified school district will decrease.”
When consolidation was on the ballot in 2011, it failed by less than a dozen votes throughout the three districts.
The information presented during the hearing, the citizens’ testimony and opinions as well as evidence collected to support consolidation has been presented to the Regional Office of Education. A written determination from the regional superintendent will be issued on whether or not the consolidation issue will appear on April’s ballot.