Three different feasibility studies.

Three different reorganization recommendations.

Now, the discussions by the Joppa-Maple Grove School Board begin.

The first is slated for the board’s next regular meeting on Monday, June 27, in the Joppa High School library. The meeting will begin at 6:20 p.m. with a budget hearing before going into regular session.

•••

Over a three-day period earlier this month at Shawnee Community College in Ullin, members of the J-MG School Board and several members of the Joppa community learned the results of the three feasibility studies the district entered into with its three surrounding school districts in 2021. The $13,250 study cost of the Massac Unit 1 School District was completely reimbursed by the State of Illinois, while half the cost of the Vienna HSD 133 and the Century Unit School District #100 studies, $6,625 each, was reimbursed.

All three presentations included data on both districts on the areas of curriculum, enrollment trends, transportation, facilities and finances to help the four boards involved make an informed decision on a possible reorganization.

The next step for the J-MG board is going through all of the information presented and making a decision from one of five choices:

• Follow the advice of the study consultants and deactivate Joppa High School, sending those ninth- through 12th-graders to Vienna High School, aka Vienna HSD 133;

• Or, follow the advice of the study consultants and be consolidated with the Century Unit School District #100;

• Or, follow the advice of the study consultants and be annexed by Massac Unit 1 School District;

• Or, keep things the way they currently are;

• Or, develop their own solution.

The three choices recommended by the study consultants require not only the approval of both the school boards involved, but also the approval of the voters who live in those school districts. Those three choices also include state incentives to help offset some increased costs experienced in reorganization.

All three studies and the recorded presentations are available on J-MG website — joppa38.com by going to the menu and looking under the School Board for Feasibility Studies 2022.

“Joppa is the hub for all three of these studies because Joppa commissioned three simultaneous studies of different possibilities of reorganization for their district. It’s a far-reaching proposal,” explained Dr. William Phillips, a consultant with MidWest School Consultants at the University of Illinois-Springfield, during the June 8 presentation. “They’re going to have a chance to get a lot of information based on different possibilities for their districts and communities.

“This is forever. I know the concerns you have. What we’re trying to provide you with is enough information you can make this important decision on,” he continued, noting in his 65 studies over the years, this is the first he’s been involved with that involved three at once.

“What are the most important factors to you to decide what’s the best thing to do for your district?” Phillips concluded. “You have to consider — one of the most important things we look at: Is there any benefit for the boys and girls? The decision is up to you.”

A refresher

A feasibility study is a tool used by school districts wanting to investigate the advantages and/or disadvantages of reorganization options. The study must contain specified performance items about both districts involved — including transportation programs, facilities, enrollment, financials and curriculum, including staffing and extracurriculars — and a final conclusion and/or recommendation on the reorganization options for the districts involved in the study.

It was Aug. 11, 2021, when Phillips spoke at a special called J-MG board meeting to discuss with the board and the community what a feasibility study is, its components and process and the state-approved procedures for reorganizing schools.

During that meeting, Phillips noted there are 11 approved methods of reorganization by the State of Illinois, and not all of them will apply to J-MG’s situation with its surrounding school districts.

At that meeting, board president Danny Burnett explained to those present: “The (J-MG) board wanted to get more information. We’re using this feasibility study to get more information.”

The J-MG and Unit 1 boards approved entering a feasibility study agreement at their separate meetings on July 26, 2021.

The J-MG board approved entering a feasibility study agreement with Vienna HSD 133 during its Oct. 7, 2021 meeting.

The J-MG and Century 100 boards approved entering a feasibility study agreement at their respective meetings on Oct. 25, 2021, and Oct. 18, 2021.

MidWest was the approved consultants by the J-MG, Unit 1 and Century 100 boards for their respective studies, while Robert Lagerblade was the approved consultant for the J-MG and VHS study.

Each school district provided five-years worth of information to the consultants, which held on-site visits to each of the 12 schools involved. Over a four-month period, all of that information was analyzed to develop a recommendation based one of the 11 reorganization methods.

The VHS study

The VHS study presentation was held Tuesday, June 7. For about 45 minutes, study consultants Lagerblade and Ray Bergles discussed the highlights of their 82-page study involving J-MG and Vienna HSD 133.

“This is the third time we’ve been down here,” Bergles said. “It’s just amazing at both schools how nice everybody was to us. We do appreciate the fact the staffs at both places were outstanding. That says a lot for the schools and the community.”

Lagerblade and Bergles also answered attendees’ written questions for an additional 10 minutes. Meeting attendees included the entire J-MG board, several members of the J-MG staff, J-MG principal Hunter Krueter, J-MG superintendent Dr. Vickie Artman, three members of the VHS board, VHS dean of instruction Kathy Anderson, VHS superintendent Joshua Stafford and residents of both districts. It was a special called board meeting for J-MG members.

The consultants conclude the best form of reorganization would be deactivating Joppa High School, sending those ninth- through 12th-graders to VHS with the districts negotiating a tuition that would be paid by Joppa. Joppa would also pay the full price for transporting its students to VHS for classes and half the transportation cost for athletic activities. J-MG’s pre-k through eighth-grades would remain intact with the current school board and tax base. If deactivation is chosen, the consultants recommend closing Maple Grove and moving those students to the JHS building.

The deactivation would involve a Board of Control made up of members from both districts. If both VHS and J-MG school boards agree, it will take a 50% plus one vote by Joppa voters to pass the referendum. If passed, the teachers come from the original cooperating districts, and they continued to get paid on that district’s schedule.

In the recommendations portion of their study, Lagerblade and Bergles wrote: “The board of education, administration and citizens of the districts will need to analyze the three studies in the context of their priorities. There is little doubt that Joppa-Maple Grove taxpayers may suffer pain in the coming years. The closing of the EEI plant, a smaller tax base, plus low enrollment, makes for difficult decisions ahead. The consultants believe the longer the school district takes to decide upon a course of action, the costlier it will become for taxpayers and, most important, for students.”

Lagerblade and Bergles noted deactivating would provide more courses and extracurricular activities for JHS students, while also saving Joppa taxpayers since there would be one building in operation.

“The consultants see this (option) as a win-win for both communities,” Lagerblade and Bergles wrote.

The Century study

The Century 100 study presentation was held Wednesday, June 8. For about 80 minutes, study consultants from MidWest School Consultants — Phillips, Dr. Scott Day and Dr. Leonard Bogle discussed the highlights of their 216-page study involving J-MG and Century Unit School District #100. The three were joined on the stage by Lisa Schuenke, the group’s newest member, who assisted with part of the study.

Phillips, Day and Bogle also answered attendees’ written questions for an additional 20 minutes. The special called meeting’s attendees included the entire J-MG board, several members of the J-MG staff, Krueter, Artman, five members of the Century board, Century superintendent Landon Sommer, who is also the principal of Century Middle and High schools, and residents of both districts.

While the consultants saw four options, they recommend consolidation be the method used by the two districts.

“We, as a consulting team, feel consolidation would be a positive nature for the students, the districts and the taxpayers,” Phillips said. “Consolidation means the districts are merged officially.”

Consolidation would create a new school district, meaning the creation of a new school board and a new district name. All the teachers’ collective bargaining agreements would be voided and renegotiated.

“If both boards are interested in the proposal, they submit a resolution to the regional superintendent asking it be put on the next election ballot,” Phillips explained.

“A committee of 10, a group that’s formed to take care of the (consolidation) petition, determines what the tax rates are. The regional superintendent holds a public hearing allowing constituents to speak on the proposal. The regional superintendent makes the decision of the petition going forward to the state superintendent; if (the state superintendent) agrees, the regional superintendent puts it on the ballot of the next election. (Voters in both districts) have to vote on whether or not you do this, and if you do, you vote on what the tax rates are going to be.”

According to their research, the consultants noted the tax rate for Century taxpayers would go up, while Joppa’s would go down.

If the majority vote for consolidation, it would begin with the start of the next school year. But in that time, Phillips said, “there are some decisions to be made,” ranging from curriculum to collective bargaining, which may take an additional year.

“Currently, both districts are in sound fiscal condition,” they wrote in the study. “These districts would undoubtedly be stronger financially (through consolidation), not to mention improving the course offerings for students.”

If consolidation is chosen, the consultants suggested sending JHS students to Century High School and moving Maple Grove students to the JHS building. Those transportation costs, a projected $84,000, would be paid by Joppa taxpayers.

The Unit 1 study

The representatives from MidWest returned Thursday, June 9, to discuss their recommendation for the study with Massac Unit 1 School District. For an hour, Phillips, Day and Bogle discussed the highlights of their 234-page study involving J-MG and Unit 1. They were joined on the stage by Schuenke, who assisted with part of the study.

Phillips, Day and Bogle also answered attendees’ written questions for an additional 40 minutes. The special called meeting’s attendees included the entire J-MG board, several members of the J-MG staff, Krueter, Artman, six members of the Unit 1 board, Unit 1 superintendent Jason Hayes and residents of both districts.

The consultants concluded the best form of reorganization would be annexation, meaning the whole J-MG school district is dissolved and becomes part of the existing Unit 1 district.

“It simply means Joppa-Maple Grove goes out of existence and the people use the tax rate, buildings, the collective bargaining agreement, the school board and everything else that Massac currently has. It does not create a new district; one district absorbs the other,” Phillips explained. “The Joppa constituents can run for the Massac school board at the next election.”

According to their research, the consultants noted the tax rate for Massac taxpayers would remain, while Joppa’s would drop. Artman later noted the current tax rate for both districts is about the same.

Each board must make a resolution to the regional superintendent to pursue an annexation. The regional superintendent holds a public hearing on the proposal and makes a decision. If the regional superintendent approves, the petition is forwarded to the state superintendent; if the state superintendent agrees, the regional superintendent puts it on the next election ballot. The annexation passes with a majority vote from each district.

“Is this a good thing for the boys and girls? I encourage you to think about it like that and decide,” Phillips said.

Through annexation, the consultants suggested sending Joppa junior and senior high students to Massac Junior High and Massac County High schools and moving Maple Grove students to the JHS building, a projected transportation increase of $110,000.

In their written report, MidWest consultants noted: “The goals of a school district reorganization should include, at minimum: to produce improvement in the quality of the educational system; to extend the scope of programs to meet individual student needs within an ever-changing society; and to develop an efficient and equitable system of financing public education.”

Superintendent reactions

Following their respective presentations, Stafford, Sommer and Hayes agreed the ball is now in the hands of the J-MG school board.

“It’s a difficult decision the Joppa community is faced with,” Stafford said at the June 7 meeting. “I admire the fact you’re diving deeply into this and considering all the avenues. At the same time, I realize it’s a tough decision. We’ve been entrusted to make the best decisions for our students. It’s one of the most important things we do collectively in any of our communities — provide the best education opportunity we can for our children. Sometimes those answers are easier to get to than others.”

Stafford encouraged Joppa staff and residents to contact him with any questions they may have as the options are mulled over. “We want to help in any way we can,” he said.

Following the presentation, Stafford provided a written statement thanking the J-MG board for allowing Vienna to be involved in the feasibility study process.

“The process has been good for us to learn about our own system and also has given us the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas,” he wrote.

“Running a school under normal circumstances on a normal day comes with some level of challenge and complexity. In unique situations, such as Joppa’s, those complexities are multiplied,” he continued. “Undoubtedly, some parts of this process will feel uncomfortable and uneasy as Joppa moves forward. However, it is important to celebrate the historical, current and future success that Joppa has produced. Due to the commitment of the Joppa community. They have successfully produced graduates, and are still producing graduates, who have gone on to be great moms and dads, truck drivers and doctors, secretaries, teachers and the list could go on. The celebration of these successes will continue to make a ripple throughout history.”

Stafford reflected on the educational progress of all of the school districts involved with the studies, noting how they began as multiple one-room schools situated around their counties to buildings holding multiple grades.

“All good and proactive organizations undergo change for growth,” he wrote. “Things change over time, and we see this not only in the school world. Each year, I have to remind myself that we are preparing kids for their future and not my past.”

Following the presentation, Hayes said Unit 1 board members “are going to continue to review the full feasibility study before discussing it any further. The presentation was very informative and quite detailed.”

Unit 1’s portion of the study is available at https://unit1.massac.org/2022-feasibility-study.

Sommer said when Artman approached Century about a feasibility study, the “board felt that such a study could provide some great information for both districts. The MidWest team was definitely able to do just that. In a situation like this, there are many variables to consider.”

For Sommer, the discussion with J-MG hits a lot of areas. Before becoming Century’s superintendent, the J-MG graduate was a J-MG principal.

“Having both attended and worked at Joppa-Maple Grove, I am very familiar with the situation they are in,” he wrote in a statement. “There have been talks of consolidation as far back as I can recall. I also know that the school district is the primary heartbeat of that community. It can be difficult to think about possibly losing your community school and the identity that comes along with it.

“Long before I was a proud Centurion, I was a proud Ranger, and Jet before that. Like many people, I would hate to see the district cease to exist, but, at the same time, I understand the difficulties they will be facing as they lose one of their primary sources of local revenue,” he continued. “I sympathize with the students, staff and community of Joppa-Maple Grove as I know they have already had, and will likely continue to have, some very difficult and unpopular conversations centered around the district’s future.”

For Sommer, the biggest takeaway from the June 8 presentation was from a financial standpoint as it relates to the Century community — a possible consolidation would likely result in an increased tax rate for the Century taxpayers. “I feel that such a tax increase would create quite a bit of hesitation, with myself, the Century School Board and the Century community, if consolidation were to come up for serious consideration,” he wrote.

“Throughout this entire process, I have been of the mindset that Century is somewhat of a secondary player in the study, primarily due to the study being initiated by Joppa-Maple Grove, but also with the nature of their involvement in two other simultaneous studies,” Sommer continued.

He concluded with a thought that was reflected by Stafford and Hayes: “Again, while the study provided some great information for both districts, I think the ball is ultimately in Joppa’s court as that community — students, staff, school board, parents, citizens, etc. — considers the best way to move forward as a district.”

And that “bottom line,” Stafford said June 7, “is in one question: What’s best for the kids?”

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