By SAMANTHA PIDDE
The West Carroll School District business office at 642. S. East St. in Mount Carroll was packed with more than 50 people attending the Wednesday, Dec. 18, school board meeting.
The primary topic of interest for most of them was the possibility of the district closing the high school in Savanna and redistributing students and staff between the middle and primary schools.
Last month board members heard an Enrollment and Facilities Study presentation from the district's new architectural firm, Grund & Riesterer Architects, Inc.
Charles Riesterer gave a recommendation that the board consider closing WCHS. He said he based the recommendation on declining enrollment as well as the age of the high school (built in the late 1950s) and many maintenance and safety issues. He said WCHS is the only building in the West Carroll district with asbestos and has the worst plumbing of the three buildings, with no sinks in the biology rooms)
Several board members at that time said that night was the first time they had seen or discussed this plan. Concerns were raised by some board members (including Jessica Edwards, who has since resigned for personal reasons) on how consolidating into two buildings could affect class sizes and teacher contracts.
Since the Nov. 20 meeting, members of the Savanna community (as well as other parts of the West Carroll district) have come together and spoken against the possibility of closing the high school.
During its meeting on Dec. 10, the Savanna City Council discussed a resolution in opposition of the closure of the high school, expected to be approved on Jan. 14. A Facebook group, "Retain West Carroll High School in Savanna," also was created and currently has more than 400 members.
Several people spoke to the board against closing the school last week. Before the public comment portion of the meeting, board president John McIntyre informed those planning to speak of the rules, explaining that no one would speak for more than five minutes, with McIntyre giving two-minute warnings and signaling at the end of five minutes. He also warned speakers that verbal attacks against specific people would not be tolerated.
The board also did not answer any questions posed by audience members, with McIntyre explaining they would not be engaging in a debate. Instead, Supt. Julie Katzenberger promised the district would post formal, written responses to all questions on the district's website.
Several individuals voiced concerns that Katzenberger and the board have an agenda to close the high school. Kathy Christensen of Savanna asked why the study was done when they are only required to do one every 10 years and the last one was just a few years ago. She asked who had requested the study. During the Nov. 20 meeting, Katzenberger had indicated the study was done because the district had a new architect.
Chris Sullivan of Savanna said it was disheartening that the only real suggestion from the district is to close the high school. She contended Katzenberger clearly put forth efforts to find a study that strictly focused on reasons to close WCHS, saying the focus should be on "improving quality of education for students."
Reading a newspaper article written when Katzenberger first became superintendent, Susan Sullivan-Dauphin said the goals Katzenberger listed then are contradicted by her actions now. She asked Katzenberger to be more "forward thinking" and involve residents and parents in this decision.
Sullivan-Dauphin questioned the timing and process for the board making a decision on this, indicating they should not rush this through.
WCHS graduate (2007) Elliott Mills asked what the total cost of the facility study was and if the district would bring forth more studies as it goes further into the process.
Several people expressed concerns about how closing the school could negatively affect Savanna. Savanna Mayor Chris Lain thanked the board for the opportunity to speak, but asked them if the district had considered how closing WCHS could affect future growth of the district, especially with all of the job openings at the prison in Thomson. Another audience asked if transporting more of the students across the district would increase busing costs and create safety concerns.
Dave Engaldo of Savanna read a letter he had written that was published in the Mirror-Democrat and Times-Journal. In his statements he acknowledged that the board needs to manage the district's finances in a responsible manner.
However, Engaldo said the district should take a more thorough look at options, instead of simply considering potential financial savings from the closing of WCHS. He added that the district also had to look into preserving and improving the quality of the education provided.
Former board member Jerry Anderson of Savanna said he personally knows what a difficult job the board has, thanking them for what they do. However, he reminded the board that when the districts first consolidated, the committee handling it rushed to make a lot of decisions.
"And as most of you know, we're still paying for these decisions," Anderson said.
He asked the board not to rush into any more decisions. He also asked them to consider what additional costs for the WCMA this would create; how this will affect special education, preschool, the library, athletics and more; how the school will address the inevitable increase in class sizes.
Jeff Law of Savanna addressed parts of the study concerning the high school's need for a new roof and it having asbestos tile. He pointed out tile could be laid over the asbestos. He also said the district could fix the roof in pieces, instead of all at once.
"You just do the worst parts first," Law said.
Another audience said he would rather see the district business office closed and see administration moved back into one of the school buildings.
Later in the meeting, Katzenberger reported that the district will be forming committees to review the architect's study. She hopes to meet with teachers and staff in January to discuss the matter.
"Any community and student input is appreciated," Katzenberger said.