News Local/State

School Consolidation Referendum Sparks Disagreement


If voters in the Catlin and Jamaica school districts say yes in the November election, their two, small, south Vermilion County school districts will consolidate into one district, to be called the Salt Fork school district. But opponents of consolidation are raising concerns.

The Catlin and Jamaica school boards voted last spring to ask voters to let them consolidate. State officials approved the referendum over the summer. Backers of consolidation says it’s the best available way to keep Jamaica and Catlin schools afloat, in the face of declining population and cuts in state funding.

Consolidation has has plenty of supporters in the Catlin and Jamaica school districts, and those supporters turned out at public question and answer sessions held by the districts in early October. But the opponents turned out, too. Members of the Thrive For Better Education Committee handed out anti-consolidation flyers at a meeting at the Jamaica High School gym on October 8th.

Jamaica parent and Thrive Committee member Jared Fritz wants his school district to consider other options --- including other potential partners, before going ahead with this one.

“Proposing that this is the best things for kids, best thing for the districts, best thing for taxpayers, best thing for teachers --- nobody really knows, because nobody ever looked at anything but the Catlin option”, said Fritz. “And when I say vet --- white-board the neighboring districts, the Westvilles, the Heritages, the Shilohs (referring to other small, nearby school districts), and vet those to see, is there a better option? This (Catlin-Jamaica consolidation) may be the best option, nobody knows. Because this is the only one that’s ever been focused on. “

Catlin and Jamaica are both very small districts that combined their high school sports programs years ago. But they’re not identical. Jamaica CUSD #12 is already a product of consolidation, covering four small towns ---- Jamaica, Sidell, Indianola and Fairmount --- with its school campus in the countryside, about two miles south of Jamaica. Few, if any students, walk to school in the Jamaica district. But many can in the more populous Catlin CUSD #5, which serves just Catlin and Catlin Township, with its schools right in the middle of town.

Under the consolidation plan, the middle school in Catlin and the high school in Jamaica would both close, while both elementary schools would stay open. But Mel Sanford, who lives in the Catlin District, told the panel of school officials at the Jamaica meeting that he fears the closures won’t save enough money, and Catlin might someday have to close its elementary school as well.

“So I guess we’re fearful that the long-term fix is someday, a building’s going to close”, said Sanford. “And we don’t want that to be our building. Our town is built around our grade school … and our junior high. If we lose that, our town dries up.”

Besides looking for partnerships with other nearby districts, Fritz, Sanford and others with the Thrive For Better Education Committee want to investigate different types of partnerships, like a cooperative high school, which two or more districts would run together, without consolidating.  (Paris Cooperative High School in Edgar County is Illinois’ first co-op high school, operated jointly by Paris School District 95 and the adjacent Paris Unit 4 School District). With a co-op high school, both school districts would stay autonomous and not have to worry about being the minority voice on a consolidated school board. But the Jamaica and Catlin school boards have already considered and rejected the co-op idea.

Jamaica first grade teacher and high school parent Dawn Eakle serves on the Salt Fork Committee of Ten, formed to study consolidation. Eagle was among those answering questions at the Jamaica meeting, and in her opening statement, she argued that the community needs to act now.

“Waiting a few more years until things get really bad is not the answer”, said Eakle. “We are already operating at near bare bones. What are we saying to our children if we don’t vote yes? We are the adults. We need to make the decision that will make a true difference in the lives of our kids and our communities.”

One thing the two sides in the consolidation debate seem to agree on is that things will only get worse for their rural school districts over time, and that by the next decade, they will have to look at additional partnerships with other school districts in order to avoid financial collapse. Thrive Committee member Jared Fritz agrees that rural school finances will continue to decline while school expenses rise.

“Gas isn’t 50 cents a gallon any more” said Fritz. “It’s four dollars a gallon, and that’s what it takes to run buses. Small towns are dying.  Our population’s getting smaller. The enrollment here is smaller. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, jump at the first ship by.”

Jamaica school superintendent Phil Harrison said after the meeting that if voters reject consolidation, his school district may explore forming a cooperative high school with another district, as well as other options --- partly because their budget is too lean to cut much further. But he says that decision would be up to the elected officials.