Proposed school reorganization focus of Nov. 22 public hearing

Regional superintendent of schools Janet Ulrich was hoping to make a decision sometime this week regarding the appearance of a Union County school reorganization plan on next year's primary election ballot.

The issue was the focus of a public hearing which was held Tuesday night, Nov. 22, at the Union County Courthouse in Jonesboro.

The hearing, which was attended by an estimated 60 to 70 people, lasted nearly three hours. Proponents and opponents of school reorganization spoke at the hearing.

Regional superintendent Ulrich served as hearing officer for the event, which took place in the courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse.

Ulrich is superintendent of schools for Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski and Union counties.

The hearing involved a proposal to place the reorganization of four Union County public school districts on the March 2012 primary election ballot.

The hearing was one step in a process which is needed to either have the issue placed, or not placed, before the voters.

Petitions were filed in early October at the regional superintendent's office at Ullin to have the issue placed on the primary election ballot. The petitions were signed by more than 400 people.

Ulrich said she would make a decision on the fate of the petition within seven days of last week's hearing. Her decision then would be forwarded to the state superintendent of education.

Depending on her decision, those involved with the matter could make an appeal in circuit court.

Ulrich said Wednesday morning that she was awaiting a copy of a transcript of the proceedings at the public hearing. She wants to review the transcript before making a final decision. The transcript is being prepared by a court reporter in Massac County.

Ulrich said she plans to drive to Springfield, perhaps this Thursday or Friday, to meet with state superintendent of education Dr. Christopher Koch. Ulrich will share her decision with Koch. Koch then will act on the matter.

The reorganization proposal involves Anna-Jonesboro Community High School District 81, Lick Creek School District 16, Anna School District 37 and Jonesboro School District 43.

Lick Creek, Anna and Jonesboro are considered to be "feeder" schools for District 81. Students from Districts 16, 37 and 43 generally attend Anna-Jonesboro Community High School after graduating from 8th grade.

Those attending the Nov. 22 hearing included administrators and board of education members  from each of the four school districts, attorneys, representatives of a Committee of Ten which has been spearheading the effort to have the reorganization issue placed on the ballot, and community members.

The Committee of Ten is made of community members from each of the four school districts.

To open the hearing, the regional superintendent laid the groundwork for the proceedings.

Ulrich emphasized that the hearing was not a court proceeding, even though it was being conducted in a courtroom.

"This is not a cross examination hearing" or a question-and-answer proceeding, Ulrich said. She asked those present to "maintain suitable behavior."

The guidelines would prove to be frustrating for legal representatives on both sides of the issue.

The focus of the hearing was on considerations which included:

•School needs and the conditions of the proposed territory.

•The ability of the proposed district to meet standards of recognition set by the Illinois State Board of Education.

•The division of funds and assets.

•A description of the maximum tax rate for the unit district and issues related to the impact of a tax cap which is in place in Union County.

Testimony opened with attorney John Bigler voicing appreciation for the work done by the regional superintendent on the issue. Bigler is a member of the Committee of Ten.

Bigler also thanked William R. Cunningham Investments Inc. and Bill Cunningham for his "very generous" support of children in the community.

William R. Cunningham Investments Inc. has been working with attorney Brandon Wright of the Miller, Tracy, Braun, Funk & Miller Ltd. law firm in Monticello to determine whether the current individualized school district system, if reorganized, could improve the educational experience for all students.

Wright was present at the hearing to serve as an expert witness on behalf of the Committee of Ten.

Bigler said the school reorganization issue was one that will impact children of the community now and for generations to come.

Ultimately, he said, a decision on reorganization should go to the voters. He emphasized that more than 400 signatures had been obtained on petitions in support of placing the issue on the ballot.

Illinois School Code guidelines required that petitions be signed by at least 50 legal residents of each of the districts.

Brandon Wright reviewed a wide range of issues and concerns which were part of the study he drafted on the reorganization proposal. He highlighted school needs, educational programming, curriculum, finances and taxes.

Based on findings, Wright reiterated that reorganization into a single district would serve each of the districts and their students better than having four separate entities.

Ulrich raised questions about the impact reorganization could have on such issues as teachers salaries, tax rates and finances. Ulrich said she wanted to consider the potential impact of reorganization in light of multiple scenarios regarding finances.

Ulrich said the number one factor she would take into consideration was whether or not reorganization would be good for the children of the four districts.

Ulrich said that she thought in terms of such considerations as academics, finances and buildings, "the schools are doing a fantastic job." She wanted to know if reorganization would offer "improvement in a full range of educational benefits."

Wright said that reorganization would be in the best interest of the four districts, their taxpayers and students.

Ultimately, he said, voters would need to be the ones who decide whether or not reorganization is good for the children.

A key question to ask, Wright said, is: "Are we OK with what we've always done or can we do it just a little better? I can't see, based on the data, how you can turn down that opportunity."

Joyce Crews, a retired Anna-Jonesboro Community High School teacher, also spoke in support of having the issue go before voters and the potential positive impact of reorganization.

Crews said reorganization could improve curriculum alignment for the four schools.

"Working together as one unit rather than four would be easier," Crews said.

Ulrich questioned Crews about why teachers could not work together under the current set up. Crews said attempts had been made. "It has not worked in the past," she said.

After taking a break nearly 90 minutes into the hearing, testimony was heard in opposition to the proposed reorganization.

Attorney Merry Rhodes spoke on behalf of Anna School District 37 and Jonesboro School District 43. Attorney Tim Denny spoke on behalf of Lick Creek School District 16.

Rhodes said the districts she represented were "not here to present testimony or make it a difficult process." Rhodes said there were "legitimate concerns" over Ulrich's authority.

She voiced "material objection" to aspects of the petitions which had been filed by the Committee of Ten. Those concerns included the wording of the heading on the petitions and issues such the addresses, county, city and state of those who signed the petitions.

Rhodes also voiced concerns about guidelines for the hearing, saying that questioning and cross-examination of witnesses should have been allowed.

Attorney Denny formally requested that the hearing be continued for 30 days. He said that information about finances which had been presented as an exhibit at the hearing had not been made available to the superintendent at Lick Creek.

Denny also contended that the hearing was in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. He said that more than 9,800 voters would be affected by the issue and that the venue for the Nov. 22 hearing was not adequate. He also cited accessibility issues for the courtroom, which is located on the second floor of the courthouse. The courthouse does not have an elevator.

Denny said that District 16 objected to all of the signatures on the petitions and asked that they be stricken because they did not state the county of those who signed them. He also objected to the potential outcome of a vote which could lead to the creation of a district involving entities which were not contiguous. Denny also objected to attorney Wright's role as an expert witness.

"We have no details on how school consolidation will work out," Denny said. "There are just a lot of things that we don't know."

After comments by attorneys Rhodes and Denny, Ulrich opened the hearing to testimony from those who were attending the hearing.

Lick Creek School Board member Clay Mitchell emphatically said he did not favor "this plan for consolidation." He said that voters have "no idea" regarding the outcome of the vote. "This is no good," he said.

Jonesboro School Board member Jon Vicenzi said he was "strongly opposed to consolidation of our schools." He cited concerns about the potential financial impact on taxpayers.

Lick Creek School Board member John Basler also voiced opposition to reorganization. "There is no plan," he said.

Community member Dave Shaffer of Jonesboro said he had problems with the reorganization plan as he had seen it. "I don't think this is being approached properly," he said, adding that more public input was needed.

As the hearing wrapped up, Ulrich told those present that "the whole issue is what is best for your children."

"You really have to look at this," she said. "You are the responsible community."

Attorney Bigler closed the hearing by emphasizing that the key question at the hearing remained whether or not the petition which had been filed was valid. "We feel like it is," Bigler said. He said the Committee of Ten wanted all of the community to be able to vote on the issue.

Bigler voiced frustration with the hearing after the event and concerns about how the regional superintendent conducted the proceedings.

He said that the hearing officer should have acted in an impartial manner, but that the regional superintendent cross-examined witnesses. Bigler said he believed that the hearing was "inappropriate" and not impartial. He said that there should have been an opportunity at the hearing to ask questions.

He said the petition fully complied with the law.

Bigler again emphasized that the Committee of Ten had gathered the signatures of more than 400 people who want to see the issue placed on the ballot. That, he said, is the bottom line.

"There are 400-plus people who are for this," he said. "Only four spoke in opposition." 


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