By SAMANTHA PIDDE
West Carroll administrators, board members and members of the community had an open dialogue about the possible closing of the high school building in Savanna during last week's school board meeting.
The school district office in Mount Carroll, just as it was last month, was filled with members of the public during the Wednesday, Jan. 15, meeting.
A Public Comments item was listed twice on the agenda — once near the start of the meeting and once near the end of the meeting, directly after Supt. Julie Katzenberger's facility presentation. During the second public comments period, board members responded to people's questions, facilitating an open discussion.
Board members first heard possible plans for closing the West Carroll High School building and consolidating all of the students into the primary school and middle school buildings on Nov. 20.
Charles Riesterer, from the district's new architectural firm, Grund & Riesterer Architects, Inc., presented an enrollment and facilities study, which highlighted the age and condition of all three school buildings. The study included the recommendation to consider the closure of the high school building.
Many people spoke against closing the high school building, or any of the school buildings, during the start of the Jan. 15 three-hour meeting.
The first person to speak, Kathy Christensen asked everyone opposed to closing the high school to stand, resulting in almost the entire audience to do so.
Christensen thanked all the board members for taking the time to be on the board, while reminding them that they were "elected and entrusted" by the people, saying, "You were elected to represent us, the people of the community.”
She questioned why the board would close the high school but keep a separate district office. Christensen referred to a statement, which she attributed to a Facebook post by board member Bev Kilpatrick, that stated selling the school would only bring $100,000, which would not be enough. Christensen emphasized that every penny counts when saving money.
Christensen added that the district office does not meet West Carroll’s needs, especially when trying to accommodate the school board meetings. At last week's meeting, audience members sat around a corner, so most could not see the board.
"Take a look around you. Are you seeing the people here?" Christensen asked.
Christensen, along with a few others, pointed out that the superintendent works for the board and the community. Susan Sullivan-Dauphin read a list of duties of both the board and the superintendent. She pointed out that Katzenberger's job is to earn the community's respect and confidence, keep parents fully informed, encourage parents to be involved and seek input from parents and guardians on significant decisions. She asked that the board and Katzenberger adhere to these policies and work toward two-way communication.
Sullivan-Dauphin said "ineffective" school boards "rubber stamp" all of a superintendent's proposals without asking thorough questions, noting that good boards keep the public informed.
Christine Sullivan said the facility plan was pushed by one person who wants to see the high school building closed. She asked why Supt. Katzenberger will not "divulge" her intentions. Christine Sullivan also spoke against the possibility of combining students into two buildings and overcrowding classes. She told the board that her son's grades on Skyward were not updated in a timely manner this semester and she was told by the teacher that she just had too much to do and had not had the time to update the grades.
"You could actually hear her frustration through her email," Sullivan said.
Juliene McCormick also expressed concerns about overcrowding, saying there are already teachers unable to teach due to extremely disruptive students. She worried this would only get worse if the district "crowds" students into two buildings.
Many members of the public indicated a level of mistrust toward the school district on this topic. McCormick said this comes from the feeling that members of the public cannot approach the board members. She also said it was unnecessary to have plans for a proposed Mount Carroll Community Center, funded by the Davis Trust, in the report from the architect.
Mount Carroll Mayor Carl Bates has previously pointed out the drawing is not even a preliminary plan (from some time ago). The city has not received any money from the Davis Trust and the city has just begun seriously discussing how it can utilize the funds (a city council work session is planned at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, at Mount Carroll City Hall).
No blueprints or plans of any kind have been created nor approved by the Davis Trust trustees. Final approval of any plan will be made by a judge. Kilpatrick agreed that she and others on the board also are irritated that these "plans" were included in the architect's report.
Dave Engaldo said the board shares some of the responsibility for the mistrust and anger going around for not having better communication with district residents
"There's a lot of misinformation going around," Engaldo said.
He handed out a sheet to each board member with some topics he felt needed to be addressed. He asked that the board provide answers to the community and work better to create a feeling of a partnership and cooperation with the community.
State Rep. Tony McCombie, a Savanna resident, spoke about some of her concerns on the report, saying some of the information regarding where Illinois ranks in funding is misleading and inaccurate.
Later in the meeting, McCombie asked exactly what was the reason for the push for the facility plan from the architect. Kilpatrick said the study was based on a recommendation of the facility committee.
"Our old architect retired," board member Fred Tipton said, explaining that with the hiring of Grund & Riesterer Architects, Inc., it was decided to approve the creation of a facility plan.
Tom Michels, who said he was a licensed engineer for 40 years, said the high school building actually has some of the "newest stuff." He indicated he was involved in some of the repairs done in the building, adding that he felt the district was overstating the issue about asbestos in the high school.
"It's not the biggest issue the people think it is," Michels said.
Michels also spoke against the fact that the facility study seemed to look at the option of closing the high school. He said he has done a lot of cost studies in his life any normally a person must look at all of the options.
"Since you didn't do that, maybe I can help you," Michels said, explaining that the first alternative he sees would be to get rid of the district office and relocate the administration into one of the school buildings.
Later in the meeting Supt. Katzenberger gave an updated facilities presentation where she reminded the board and the audience that WCPS was built in 2000, WCMS was built in 1998 and WCHS was built in 1957. She said the district office building was built 43 years ago and houses seven offices, with 11 adults (six district employees and five Right-Step employees). She said Right-Steps services 54 families at the district office building.
For WCMS and WCPS, Katzenberger highlighted many positive items, such as the fact that roofing repairs have been completed at both buildings and a Dec. 16 testing (covered by insurance) for mold at WCPS showed no elevated levels of mold.
The superintendent said WCPS received one-to-one laptops for third grade through a grant; a Rotary Grove sign was installed at the WCMS; a Free Little Library will be installed soon at the WCMS; a disc golf course will be installed in the spring at WCMS by faculty member Pat Foltz through a WCEF grant.
Moving onto the WCHS, Katzenberger highlighted some of the negative issues for the building. She said the window caulk is cracking and falling and that a Dec. 18 sample from IDEAL Environmental showed asbestos in samples of window glazing and window sealant/mortar. Katzenberger said the short-term solution will be to fill the cracked spots with silicone caulking and continue to monitor the situation.
In another asbestos-related topic at the high school, Katzenberger pointed out that many of the classrooms need new ceilings, flooring and windows (all original). She said all of these items are assumed or "sample positive" to contain asbestos. She quoted Scott Liescheidt, a licensed asbestos inspector, in saying that "no level (of asbestos) is a safe level." Katzenberger said breathing asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
The superintendent said the grounds at the north end of the high school are saturated and a swale needs to be added to improve water drainage by the visitors’ football bleachers. She also said that a hole in the parking lot, believed to be due to a pipe breaking, needs to be repaired. Luckily, Katzenberger said, both issues will be corrected by Fischer Excavating, at no cost to the district.
Katzenberger estimated the cost to complete all renovations to classrooms and offices at WCHS would be between $6-$8 million This does not include plumbing and heating costs.
Board member Walt Miller contended there is no reason why all of the updates need to be done at once. However, newly-appointed board member Nicole Thulen said the asbestos issues (primarily the crumbling and falling of window caulk) cannot wait.
Thulen said this is a personal issue to her and said her daughter (who has cancer) is not allowed to go into the high school with falling asbestos. She asked the district to seriously look into the log-term solution of replacing the windows, instead of just filling the cracks.
Board President John McIntyre added that currently many of the windows are "duct-taped" shut and cannot be opened.
As part of her financial discussion in her facilities report, Supt. Katzenberger highlighted the fact that West Carroll lost $120,717 in tax year 2018 due to Savanna's TIF extension. McCombie, however, pointed out that she has a letter of support for the extension signed by Katzenberger.
"If you didn't support it and it was going to cause financial hardship, it shouldn't have been done," McCombie said.
Kilpatrick said the district did not realize just how much money would be lost due to the TIF.
McCombie told the board that with the prison and more people coming in, families are looking at three main items when choosing a community: schools, hospitals and grocery stores. She said that Morrison is currently winning this contest because it continues to build up its community.
"If we stop investing in our community, we won't have growth," McCombie said.
As a state representative, McCombie said she understands that sometimes the district has to make "hard decisions that hurt people, but is right." However, she said before the district decides to close the WCHS building, it must show this action will improve education in West Carroll.
"It cannot be about money and it can't be about health life safety issues," McCombie said.
Kilpatrick countered this statement, saying, "You can say it's not about money, but when you don't have money, it's about money. Money is a factor."
The school board had a back-and-forth discussion about what could happen if the district closes the high school and then a large number of families move in due to the prison. Kilpatrick and Tipton both pointed out that the district has only seen a trend of decreasing enrollment. Miller called them pessimistic, while Kilpatrick countered they were being realistic.
Audience member Gary Scott Law pointed out that at the beginning of the consolidation in 2005-06, West Carroll had six school buildings. Now it has three.
"We've gone from six to three. How many do we have to go down?" Scott asked.
Tipton responded that since the consolidation, the district's enrollment has decreased by 600 students, saying, “I'm sorry, we cannot overlook that.”
Kilpatrick equated the discussion to the decision a few years ago to close and eventually sell the intermediate school in Thomson. Like then, she said the question is how long do they wait on enrollment. Board members Dawn Rath and Miller both worried about closing down a school and then needing more space in a few years.
One audience member said that when his family was looking to move into the area, one of the deciding factors for them choosing West Carroll was the community. However, he said if the district only had two school buildings and larger class sizes, he might have chosen Chadwick-Milledgeville, despite the area not having as many businesses and services.
Rath and McIntyre agreed that no matter what decision the district makes, it is one that cannot be made by August for next school year. Thulen said she understands people's feelings, as she was against closing the Thomson school.
"From an emotion stand point, I get it," Thulen said, adding that she believes whatever decision is made, it will not be a quick one. She said she hopes to make the community a part of this decision.
"We're having a conversation. We're letting everyone hear the conversation. This is an open meeting," Thulen said.
Christine Sullivan thanked the board for the open dialogue and for answering audience members’ questions. She said many had been discouraged at previous meetings when the board did not answer questions. She wished more people had stayed for this second public comments time period.
"This is what we needed to hear," Sullivan said.
Tipton said he and many on the board have been accused of having gone into a "dark room" and that the matter had already been decided. He stressed that is not the case and that the board wants to be upfront.
"We don't want a back room thing," Tipton said. "But we also don't want to bankrupt the district."
Kilpatrick agreed that the board needs to work on better communication with residents. Tipton said he is more than willing to listen to people's comments and answer their questions. However, he siad that anything he says only represents himself, not the entire board or district.
"We, as a group, are one-seventh of an idea," said Tipton, adding that every board member might not always agree with each other.
While the majority of the audience seemed to be opposed to the closure of the high school building, during both public comment agenda items, many people spoke against the nasty comments and personal attacks they have seen on social media regarding the issue.
"We as the public need to not be so ridiculous on social media. That does not help," McCormick said. "We all need to be champions."
Ross Ballard, a former Mount Carroll student (who now has a child attending West Carroll, said the community needs to come together for the children instead of posting nasty comments and calling the superintendent nasty names on Facebook.
"I see a lot of anger between the communities here," Ballard said, adding that if the community cannot come together on this issue, the children are the ones that ultimately suffer. Ballard said that what he has seen on social media has been "kind of disgusting."
However, he said he can understand why people are upset, saying, "If you lose the school in your town, it feels like it hurts.”
Ballard made it clear that he was not saying to close the school or not to close it, noting, "The board has a tough decision to make. You have to take your emotions out of it."
Engaldo agreed that there is a lot of "sniping" on social media, saying, "It's destructive. It's not doing any good.”
Christine Sullivan said there has been a lot of conjecture since this matter started which has created a "storm of hostility" that is having a negative impact on the community.
"It has been pure gossip," Sullivan said.
Throughout the board meeting, many members of the community agreed with McCombie's suggestion that the board consider creating an advisory committee or commission on this matter, with members of the district, local government and the community. The board as a whole, agreed this was a good idea, but could not formally vote on the formation of such a commission as it was not on the agenda. The topic is expected to be on the agenda of the next regular meeting on Feb. 5.
The board also was asked to consider meeting in one of the school buildings for the next few meeting to better accommodate a large audience.