Photo by Diane Cox
Wood River resident Charlie Hoffman presented his reasons why the option of consolidating East Alton school district 13, East Alton-Wood River High School District 14 and Wood River-Hartford School District 15 should not be placed on the April 2017 ballot for voters to decide during a public hearing June 13.
Supporters and opponents of consolidating the East Alton, Wood River and Hartford school districts met for a public hearing June 13 at the Madison County Administration Building to discuss the possibility of the proposal reaching the April 2017 ballot.
In what would be the third time area residents vote on the matter since 2010, the opposing group hopes that filing a formal objection will shut down the efforts of the Committee of Ten before ever reaching the ballot.
Wood River resident Charlie Hoffman stood before Regional Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Dalber and nearly three dozen citizens and cited his reasons the consolidation should not to be put to public vote. Reasons included a two-year filing period, the East Alton school district being placed on the 2015 Illinois State Board of Education financial watch list, page numbers not being consecutively numbered according to the Illinois election code, and accusations the Committee of Ten filed invalid signatures on the formal petition submitted to have consolidation placed on the 2017 ballot.
The Committee of Ten have filed for consolidation of the East Alton, Wood River and Hartford school district with the main arguments of curriculum alignment, school calendar alignment, a single superintendent over the district, one budget for the entire district and one school board to make unified decisions and potential tax adjustments and revenue. In 2009 and 2010, a study was conducted to present the pros and cons of the consolidation option to area residents. No studies have been conducted since. The consolidation has been voted down by single digit votes in two previous elections.
"It would be so expensive to align the schools curriculum," Wood River resident Linda Hoffman said. "Where is this money going to come from? I've said this all along; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I know that sounds common, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and I mean that. Our districts are not broken. There are problems of course, there are problems in every school district."
Hoffman also said it is not an issue to be taken lightly.
"(This is) something we cannot go into without lots and lots of data," she said. "A big five-year plan or budget that says this will happen the first year, and this will probably happen the next year, and so on. That's what you have to do. Once this bell is rung, you can't go back."
Committee of Ten chairman Charles Johansen said that consolidation focuses on the one thing the opposition doesn't consider-the needs of the students and the success of the schools as a whole.
"There was a lot of talk of the study that was made years ago," Johansen said. "Yes, that study was done years ago and many things have changed with local and state funding. Those are things that got us where we are today. We have East Alton District 13 on the ISBE financial watch list and is facing having to sell bonds. That's just kicking the problem down the street for another day to address. With Wood River Elementary in talks about moving to attendance centers, this is the time to call the question again."
"The one big thing that has not changed since the study is the need for our students," Johansen continued. "We are a community of three which have the responsibility for our children from Kindergarten through senior year. Anyway you look at it, we become a school district of one. So we need to do the right thing as a community and become one true unified district."
Wood River resident Tom Dale spoke during the public hearing with concerns that lead him against the consolidation, but admits having more information could leave him considering a change in vote.
"I don't feel that the current proposed consolidation would actually produce the benefits that are being stated," Dale said. "Based upon factual information of the Roxana district and studies that show that you don't save a bunch of money by consolidating, I don't see any proof that the tax rate will drop the first year. After that, things could be left wide open or maybe increase taxes. I don't think we should fix the problems that exist with consolidation. We need our superintendents to come together and cooperate with each other to fix issues without increasing teachers salaries and benefits."
He questioned whether the business plan would be a financially solvent avenue.
"I have a business degree, I've worked for a large corporation," he said. "I'm trained to look at the financial aspects and to me this doesn't make a good business decision; which the school district and my taxes are a business decision. If you don't have the proof, you don't do it yet. You can always make the decision to change, but you can't go back and fix it. I would love to save tax money, but I don't want to put money into the district to give teachers more money if we can't get a better education for the kids and improve the system. I say we keep it as it is until they can show me where we can even pay the same amount we're paying now and we'll make improvements, I would vote yes for it. I won't vote yes because of someone else's gut feeling. We need to do our research."
Committee of Ten member Tony Roberts was one name listed on the petition in question during Hoffman's formal objection, and Roberts issued a statement to AdVantage News following the public hearing.
"Everyone can agree that our schools are in bad shape," Roberts said. "With families and industry slowly leaving the area we must come together for the greater good of our children and their education. I was born and raised in Wood River and have a strong love for this area. Economy is not strong and with Olin leaving us it's only going to get worse. Unfortunately the first thing that suffers when industry leaves the area is the school system. We are fractured and without a plan we will certainly break.
"I am saddened when I hear opposition say 'Yes, our schools have issues and need help but if its not broke don't fix it.' I am stunned and saddened by hearing statements like this. I just wish that this was about the education of our children instead of being about taxes. It's not about how much money we may or may not save. It's truly 100 percent about the students. It's about coming together as a community. I hope the great citizens of these school districts really educate themselves before voting this next election if consolidation gets on the ballot."
Consolidation supporter and Wood River resident Andrew Russell said that comparisons between other area schools are far more advanced academically than the East Alton and Wood River districts.
"When looking at the East Alton Wood River High School District compared to surrounding high schools within unit districts, particularly Roxana and Civic Memorial, East Alton Wood River is nearly 10 percent or more behind the comparison schools in multiple categories according to the Illinois State Board of Education report cards," Russell said. "Most notably, the category for college readiness. East Alton Wood River is at 25 percent while Civic Memorial is at 41percent and Roxana is at 35 percent. There are very similar trends in the categories for freshman on track, graduation rate, and those ready for the next level."
He also questioned the idea of merging classes when some students may be more prepared than others.
"Lewis and Clark Junior High School students are passing eighth grade algebra at 28 percent, which is great until we see that East Alton Middle School is at zero percent with eighth grade algebra," he said. "That indicates that there is not an eighth grade algebra course available to those students at East Alton Middle School. So, we are bringing the eighth grade students from both elementary schools together at the freshman level with almost 30 percent of them ahead of their classmates in math."
The ISBE will evaluate all statements and evidence submitted during the June 13 meeting and will issue a ruling on if the consolidation of East Alton District 13, East Alton-Wood River High School District 14 and Wood River-Harford District 15 will reach the April 2017 ballot.