West Carroll Comes Out to Support
Music Teacher in Wake of Budgetary Cuts
A large number of signs were present supporting instructors Mark and Emily Bressler and the music department at the 3/24/13 West Carroll Board meeting. (PA photo/Michael Miller)
By MICHAEL MILLER
For The Prairie Advocate News
Approximately 100 people came out for the Wednesday, March 20th meeting of the West Carroll School Board, largely because the Board placed the potential closing of the Thomson Intermediary School on its agenda, and to show their strong support for Music Teacher Mark Bressler, whose job they feared was in jeopardy due to what seemed to be impending budgetary cuts.
Board members Bev Kilpatrick, Dawn Rath, John Brigham, Jerry Anderson, Mike Highland and Tim Atherton were in attendance.
Wave after wave of students, instructors and parents stepped forward during the public comment section of the meeting to express their opposition to Bressler being cut. Many of the students related personal stories to illustrate the impact Bressler had made in their lives, or in the lives of their children.
Lamb recognized student achievement by announcing and introducing many West Carroll students who had gone above and beyond. Zach Hartman qualified for the State High School Wrestling Tournament this year, with an overall record of 37-9. Jacob Klein, not present, also qualified for the State Wrestling Tournament, with an overall record of 35-14, and is the first West Carroll athlete to qualify for State in two separate events; wrestling and track last year. He also introduced Illinois State Scholars Morgan Ashby, Jill Green, Tate Hunter, Ben Rogers, and Charlotte Thomas.
Mathers then gave a lengthy and detailed presentation to the Board dealing with the district’s current financial situation, specifically, to address the rationale for potentially closing the West Carroll Intermediary School in Thomson. He said that it was important to not repeat mistakes of the past and to have a vision for going forward, and reviewed some of the reasons for consolidating back in 2005, notably finances, class size, State incentives, potential necessity or just a natural progression. He offered the sobering statistic that at one time Illinois had 10,000 districts, and now it has less than 890, and the number is constantly shrinking. West Carroll, he said, with 218 square miles, is in the top ten of the largest districts per square miles in Illinois.
He noted that all three communities were struggling financially, and that “you don’t take three poor businesses and put them together and expect that you’re going to have ten million dollars in the bank overnight,” but that that was one of the projections that had occurred. If the fund balances continue on course as projected, the district will not have enough funds to operate for one more year, the superintendent said.
Enrollment is another factor pinching the district financially, he reported, with the loss of 255 students over an eight year period. More grim statistics awaited the Board financially, as Mathers said that the local tax extension generates less funding in 2012 than it did in 2008. West Carroll is also taking in $1.668,682.00 less from the State, based on the previous fiscal year, with another loss of $418,000 for this year lost in state aid.
For next year the district is projected to lose over $800,000.00 in General State Aid, with a $318,300.00 in Transportation, and a total projected loss of revenue of over 2 and a half million dollars in seven years.
In reaction, the Board has cut nearly 4 million dollars since March of 2006, including contract negotiations when possible, renting space to various groups, and has closed two schools, one each, in Mt. Carroll and Savanna. Salary freezes, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, were seen across all departments in the district. In 2005, the district had 255 staff members, while the current number stands at just 190.
While the federal government is required to pay the majority of the Special Education expenses, it currently divvies up a mere 7 percent of these funds.
In terms of the condition of all four current buildings, the Intermediary School far and away has required the most money to keep running efficiently, with fully $2,712,863.00 being spent on this structure. The closest other building in terms of cost was the High School in Savanna, at $1,076,331. The potential savings from closing the Thomson school would be in Transporation, Operations and Maintenance, and Education.
The school also has the smallest number of classrooms and square footage. “Space,” Mathers said, “is at a premium.”
Mathers added that he told the Board that if the cuts came down to a choice between buildings or staff, he wanted to keep staff, “because they educate kids, buildings don’t.”
The superintendent also touched on the potential impact of the opening of the Thomson prison, commenting that officials he’d spoken with told him the district would be lucky to get 10 to 15 kids from this event, given that the employees are encouraged to drive long distances to work.
Some of the considerations that make the Thomson school more logical for a closure than the others include the electrical upgrades needed there, its smaller classrooms, the poor locker room conditions, lack of iFiber and wireless access, the huge cost of boiler and roof maintenance and repair, limitations of the cafeteria, parking and other considerations.
In response to a question previously asked, Mathers said the cost of building a whole new building that could house the whole district was about 66 million dollars, with only 3 million dollars at the district’s disposal currently.
All students in the district could fit into three buildings, Mathers said.
Two solutions are available to the district to address its budgetary woes, the superintendent said. Cut expenditures and/or raise revenue. Expenditures include staff, programs, buildings and benefits, while revenue could be raised by a one percent sales tax, a referendum, support organizations, school fees, and help from the GSA.
Mathers expressed the frustration of the situation by referencing an article he’d recently read that reported that the State pays $2,266.00 more to the City of Chicago per student than it does to downstate Illinois.
“There is something wrong with the State of Illinois,” he concluded.
He ended his remarks by noting that school boards are there to think of the kids. “Unfortunately, we live in the State of Illinois. And instead of the kids driving the budget, the State of Illinois is driving the budget.”
Katy Woods, representing the cast of “Anything Goes,” spoke in support of Bressler, saying that he was a major factor in motivating her and others to come to school in the morning, calling him and other music instructors ‘role models’ and noting their “relationship of mutual respect.” She noted, as did several other speakers, that she was considering leaving the district if the music program was ended.
Anna Curtis, a Middle School student, presented a petition with over 200 middle school signatures to help save Bressler and the music department. She noted that Mr. Bressler, his wife Emily and Mr. Scott Mattison have literally changed many students’ lives.
Suzanne Woods, president of the West Carroll Middle School Boosters, brought up interesting points about the effect of music on the human mind, saying that it “makes us smarter.” She also mused about what the potentially beneficial effects might be if West Carroll became “known for music.”
Mrs. Woods’ husband, Dan “Doc” Woods, urged the Board to focus on the “ultimate purpose” of education. He noted, while admitting the benefits of athletics, that no cuts to the athletic department were planned and felt that this department could be funded in other ways. He urged the board to not cut teachers.
Julie Bickelhaupt urged community involvement and contacting local and state officials to help support the school.
Board Member Comments
In turn, most of the Board chose to make comments on the proceedings. Mark Klein tried to motivate the crowd to become active in sports and other booster clubs, as it was his feeling the community participation might be very helpful in putting a dent in what he called the district’s “ominous” financial numbers.
Atherton caused a bit of a stir with his comments. He began by saying that no decision has been made yet and that these decisions were not easy for the Board.
“I have an issue with you guys hearing that there’s one thing wrong and you pack the gymnasium. This is your first meeting; I’ve been on the board for four years . . . and people have not shown up . . . You guys are constantly coming to us when something is wrong but you are not providing us with a solution.”
He went on. “All you are doing is chastising us when we have to make the hard decisions when you have not been here for [four years].” He noted the failure of the one percent sales tax initiative as an example of a solution by the Board that wasn’t supported by the community. “You need to be more involved if you are to earn our respect, so to speak” Atherton added.
The previously calm crowd reacted noticeably to these comments, with Anderson and Kilpatrick attempting to mediate the situation and provide some counterpoint to these comments. Anderson noted that Atherton’s opinions were not those of the Board as a whole, and urged cooperation.
“Instead of throwing rocks at each other, we have to move forward,” he said. Kilpatrick agreed, saying “we do appreciate you all being here tonight, we’re glad you’re involved, your input is meaningful and we will take it under consideration.”
Highland provided perspective and passion during his comments. “We want you to become involved in what we do but we have some serious limitations,” he said, notably the adherence to school codes, state laws and being “plagued by federal and state mandates with no funding.” He said the Board has seen the need for budgetary adjustments for months now and has devoted many hours to these discussions. He spoke to the question of dealing with some of these issues in private by saying, “in order to protect the integrity of the individuals involved in personnel decisions” they had to deal with them in the manner that they did, in closed sessions.
“We are faced with very, very difficult financial problems and somehow we have to work our way through those and in order to do this some instructors may have to be cut loose to save funds,” the Board president said. “We need sound financial changes at the state level that will help all the school districts.”
He said the state wants “fewer districts so they can distribute fewer funds; they’ve stolen all the money from the pension funds and now they’re stealing your tax money which would go to education,” Highland said.
He said the public should be angry about this and should be demanding full funding for education at West Carroll. He urged support of the West Carroll support organizations, contacting legislators and attending school board meetings.
Closed Session Cuts
In their closed session, the Board made just the hard decisions they referred to during the regular session. Three bus drivers were released, one three hour custodial position was cut, one part time instructional aide and one instructional aide/driver were also cut. Also cut were the Title One aid position, one part time math teacher, three full time non certified staff and also, Mark Bressler, six year certified staff member, due to a Reduction in Force.