Regional superintendent denies school reorganization petition

The Illinois state superintendent of education will make the next decision in a proposed reorganization involving four Union County public school districts.

Regional superintendent of schools Janet Ulrich on Friday, Dec. 2, issued a written order denying a petition which had sought to place the issue on the 2012 primary election ballot in Union County.

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

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

Ulrich's decision was delivered Friday to Dr. Christopher A. Koch, the state superintendent of education. Koch has 21 days (from Dec. 2) to make a ruling on the matter.

Koch can either agree with Ulrich's decision or decide to support the petitioners' effort to have the issue placed on the primary election ballot.

If Koch decides in favor of the petition, then Ulrich will proceed with preparing the issue to go on the ballot in the March 2012 primary election.

If Koch decides against the petition, he will provide substantial evidence for his decision, the regional superintendent said.

No matter what the state superintendent decides, an appeal can be made legally regarding the outcome. An appeal can be made within 35 days of the state superintendent's decision.

The petition drive had been spearheaded by a Committee of Ten made up of representatives from each of the four school districts. More than 400 people signed petitions in support of having the proposal placed on the ballot.

Regional superintendent Ulrich made her decision to deny the petition in the aftermath of a public hearing which was held Nov. 22 at the Union County Courthouse in Jonesboro. Supporters and opponents of the issue spoke at the hearing.

John Bigler, an Anna attorney who is a member of the Committee of Ten, said Tuesday that he was "very, very disappointed” by Ulrich's decision.

In the aftermath of the decision, Bigler said the committee planned to meet Wednesday afternoon in Anna. The committee will be awaiting the state superintendent of education's decision before deciding what step to take next.

In her order denying the petition, Ulrich cited "alleged petition defects" which she stated " were not fully addressed, including:

"Confusion with Petition Prayer": Ulrich wrote in her order that once the public notice of the full original petition was published in the local newspaper, "community members/voters/citizens may have thought the petition was sanctioned by all four boards of education which was not the cause."

"Confusion with Petitioners' Signatures and Validity of Registered Addresses": Ulrich stated: "Most signatures on the original and amended petition were missing the city, county and state which were to be used to identify correct addresses and appropriate registered voters' signatures."

Ulrich  wrote that she did not receive any map describing the districts involved in the petition's proposed action prior to the hearing. She stated that a map which was provided at the hearing was "not legible."

"Too Many Unknowns - What Is The Voter Voting For?”: ”If this petition moves forward and is approved, it would be the first type of 'hybrid' reorganization in the State of Illinois. The Regional Superintendent's concern would be the risk voters take with a vote for this petition proposal having multiple outcomes. This is not a one outcome result but eight possible results.”

"The Eight Options are Unspecified on Ballot - Only YES or NO to Reorganize”: Ulrich stated that she "has an obligation not to place any one or more of the four districts and their communities in a non-sustainable financial situation.”

Ulrich also cited the division of funds and assets, transportation funding and other costs, curriculum and other factors in making her decision.

The regional superintendent wrote that she could not approve the petition moving forward when considering "what is best for schools, revenues with four of eight scenarios showing a loss in school district funds and a large number of certified staff placed on the highest salary scale, finances, and most importantly what is best for students and their academic opportunity as well as extracurricular involvement.

"If I knowingly understand that eight possible outcomes will be feasible from this petition request and that these outcomes could very well put the financial status of one or more of our districts at risk, I cannot approve a reorganization change when these four educational systems have proven to be working well as it stands.”

John Bigler was critical of the regional superintendent's decision, saying that it "smacks of political gamesmanship."

Bigler said the Committee of Ten thought that it had met requirements for signatures which were obtained on petitions in support of the referendum. Bigler shared a copy of a Nov. 17 letter the committee had received from the regional superintendent which stated a First Amended Petition which had been filed in the matter was ”proper and in compliance with all applicable petition requirements set forth in the Election Code.”

Bigler also voiced concerns about new evidence which was part of the regional superintendent's decision but was not part of the Nov. 22 hearing.

Ultimately, the regional superintendent should be staying neutral in the matter, Bigler said, and voters should be able to have their say in the proposed reorganization.

He said the Committee of Ten was disappointed because the community may be missing an opportunity to have a say in improving the education of the community's children, both now and in the years to come.

Bigler said the Committee of Ten could be corresponding with the state superintendent of education to voice their concerns about the decision to deny the petition. The committee is hoping that the state superintendent will reverse Ulrich's decision.

"We hope he does the right thing," Bigler said.

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