By SAMANTHA PIDDE
Board members, administrators and community residents utilized a webinar format for the Tuesday, March 31, West Carroll School Board meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ninety persons were signed into the webinar.
As in past months, the main topic of the meeting remained the possible closure of the West Carroll High School building in Savanna, with the board hearing two presentations on the matter. Presentations included an SOS (Support Our Students) report entitled "Growth, Financial Considerations & Summation" and a presentation on facility planning for schools from former Eastland Supt. Mark Hansen.
Tony McCombie of Savanna, a state representative from the 71st District, said a discussion on a student attendance center might not seem as important. However, she indicated it is important the board consider all of the steps which should be taken before a decision is made to close a school building. She outlined many steps, including looking at a plan than includes all options, not just one, and seeking community input and support.
"We've been given an opportunity to speak and we're thankful for that," said McCombie. "But three times for 10 to 15 minutes is far from community involvement."
Samantha Whiting voiced concerns that the board is not seriously listening to and considering all of the information being presented by the SOS and other members of the public.
"No matter what information these amazing community members bring you, it isn't good enough," Whiting said.
Whiting said she knows this due to the lack of eye contact, lack of input from the board and other things she has noticed at previous meetings. She said the board would rather pick apart solutions presented by the people who are doing the board and administration's jobs rather than offer support and discussion.
"Why are you being so quiet, but so quick to make a decision?" said Whiting, asking the board to hold off making any decisions right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she would hate to see a quick decision that is not clearly thought out.
Board members heard an SOS presentation from Dave Engaldo, Savanna Mayor Chris Lain and Greg Stott.
Mayor Lain spoke about growth in the district, acknowledging the "irony" of giving a presentation on growth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Right now many of our businesses are closed and others are fighting to stay afloat," Lain said.
He presented several slides with information on the various transportation entities, tourist attractions and area businesses. Lain said the city branded "Explore Savanna" a couple of years ago and spoke about how Savanna, Mount Carroll and Thomson are setting the stage for continued growth.
Lain reminded the board that Savanna was one of 73 communities in Illinois, and the only one in the local area, to be awarded an Opportunities Status. He also spoke of the city's two Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts and how they have benefited many local businesses and the community.
“And we've been aggressive in offering these funds and we've seen growth from them," Lain said, adding that while Savanna has current TIF agreements with “half-a-dozen” businesses, there are a couple more currently being worked on and others being requested.
The city of Mount Carroll also has a TIF district.
Lain spoke about recent Savanna infrastructure projects, most notably the Wacker Road project, noting this year Savanna will be working on a street engineering study.
One slide of Lain's presentation focused on community improvements in both Savanna and Thomson. He spoke about the expansion of riverfront park, which will include additional green space, picnic and fishing areas, parking and a dog park. Another major improvement he pointed out is the opening of the Kiddie City Day Care & Learning Center in the former West Carroll Intermediate School in early summer. Lain said the center will accommodate 150-200 children between the ages of six weeks to 11 years old) as well as before and after-school programs. It is expected to have around 30 employees.
Lain spoke about the Shimer Square project the Rock Island Economic Growth Corporation is doing in Mount Carroll, calling it a "big deal." He said GROWTH is developing a mixed-use housing development and is hoping to begin construction on phase one of t he project with potentially as many as 37 residential units and possibly begin another renovation to include two and three-bedroom units. Lain estimated as many as 85 total units could be created at the property in the next few years. He added that GROWTH also has a letter of intent for a microbrewery at the property.
Lain's presentation highlighted several of Savanna's larger businesses, such as Metform and Elkay Manufacturing, which he said continue to grow.
"The stage is set. We believe modest growth and enrollment increases will follow. Let's give this a chance to succeed," Mayor Lain said.
Stott, of Savanna, a retired school administrator in northwestern Illinois, highlighted some of West Carroll’s financial data, pointing out that in the 2018-19 school year, the district's expenditures were $1 million less than its revenue. He said West Carroll’s financial profile is a 3.7 on a scale "from one to four,” noting how good that is for a district.
Stott discussed the district's current bond debt, which will be paid off in fiscal year 2028, noting this is before other locals schools will have theirs paid off.
He offered a comparison of other area districts and said West Carroll's EAV funds in 2018 were $1.315 million and the district's 2018 levy rate was 6.01627. He said that between the recent increase in EAV and the extra funds from the Education Fund referendum, the district should be in a good position and not have to close a building.
"It's making it possible for us to stay in the black, to be in the black and to operate in the black," Stott said.
Engaldo, of Savanna, summarized the previous SOS presentations, reminding everyone that while the architect's study estimated the cost of all the repairs at the high school at $7.4 million, the SOS's own estimate was $1.3 million.
"These are estimates, these are approximations," Engaldo said.
He said the main purpose of the estimates is to determine the "ballpark" they are in, noting that not all of the updates have to be done right away and some of the more urgent maintenance can be done by district employees.
Engaldo said that while the architect has projected closing WCHS could save $400,000, SOS has estimated that figure is closer to $130,000. Either way, Engaldo said the savings are actually minimal in the grand scheme of things.
"Is this significant justification to push forward?" said Engaldo. "We don't think so."
In a written response to the SOS regarding the estimated $400,000 annual savings, West Carroll said, “Closing the high school would save taxpayers millions of dollars needed in renovating a building that has original windows from the 1950’s, asbestos abatement is needed for renovations to occur, and upgrading plumbing systems, floor, and ceiling tiling. Even after all these renovations we would still be left without a fire sprinkler system, grounds work to completed to reduce flooding, and underground asbestos tunnels.”
Engaldo also referred to the West Carroll Education Association speaking against the possible closure, saying teachers seem to be against the action due to its timing and spatial concerns. He said these two concerns should be enough to delay any decision on closing the WCHS building.
Engaldo asked the board to continue looking into the matter, speaking to staff, area mayors and taxpayers. He said the board needs to find a solution that is the best for the children and should conduct ongoing public outreach.
"We in the communities are your partners, stay connected with us," he said.
Engaldo closed his presentation acknowledging the decision is probably one of the most difficult and most important ones many of the board members will be involved in while on the board.
"We just ask that you give our communities and these measures a chance to work," said Engaldo. "So, just like the teachers, we're not saying never, just not now."
After the SOS presentation, retired Eastland Supt. Hansen discussed how a district should consider and potentially move forward on closing a school building, based on his experiences at Eastland. The presentation was a generic one he had given earlier to the Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico school board.
Hansen highlighted several factors that should be used determine if a building should be closed, saying decision might not be simply one if the district has enough money, but also if the money available is being used efficiently.
"There are savings to be had when you make changes in attendance center," Hansen said.
He highlighted the multiple phases Eastland considered regarding the closure of the grade school building in Lanark, which included analyze, design, develop, communicate and implement. He said the board tried to look at every possible option before developing on a plan, which was then taken to the public for "informed input." He also discussed the work that goes into actually implementing such a change, saying it cannot happen overnight.
Following Hansen's presentation, many questions were posed by the public via the webinar's chat window, which West Carroll board president John McIntyre then read to Hansen. One of the main questions was how long Eastland's process took. Hansen said the district moved faster with the plan than other districts, but it took about two years.
Another question asked if Eastland would have chosen to close the building if it had been in "good financial standing." Hansen said they had been in good financial standing at the time and did not have to make the change. However, the recession at that time made the district look more closely at how it was spending its money.
In response to a question concerning capacity, Hansen said the district had empty classrooms in all three buildings and has continued to have empty classrooms after downsizing into two buildings. Seven years later, the district is now considering possible building projects to add space due to an increase in enrollment.
Hansen was asked if citizen committees benefited the process at Eastland. He said the board advertised for key citizens to join committees of approximately 10 people, noting it was a good way to present information and questions through the community.
Another question asked how important Hansen felt listening to teachers is and if the Eastland board would have closed the building if teachers had been opposed. He said it is important for a district to work with its teachers, showing them any proposed plans and asking for any input.
"Cause they will see things sometimes that we didn't consider," Hansen said.
Hansen said he could not speak to what the board would have done if teachers opposed the closure. He said it was not his decision, but the board’s and he would not speak for them. He noted none of the teachers opposed the closure publicly.
"There wasn't an active, organized thing against this," said Hansen, adding there was a consensus the building the board was closing was the one in the worst condition.
In other business at its March 31 webinar meeting, the West Carroll School Board:
•Approved increasing substitute teacher's pay from $90 to $100, beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
•Briefly discussed student capacity charts as well as district responses to comments from the SOS group during the Feb. 26 meeting.
•Approved four overnight trip requests, including one from WCHS wrestling, two from WCHS girls basketball and one from the WCHS Drama Club. These approvals were made with the understanding that things could change due to the COVID-19.
•Approved the 2020-21 school calendar.
•Approved the second reading of the 2020-21 faculty handbook.
•Approved a resolution for the Emergency Suspension of Policy due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
•Accepted the first reading of the 2020-21 transportation handbook.