Two Rural School Districts Consider Consolidation

Voters in the Catlin and Jamaica school districts are being asked to approve merging, to avoid steep cuts.

Voters in the Jamaica and Catlin school districts will be asked to approve consolidation in the November election. The school boards of the two rural districts are recommending a merger as a way to reduce expenses, and postpone financial insolvency.

Consolidation is an option small school districts may consider, in the face of declining populations and cuts in state school funding. Few districts actually go through with the idea. But it could happen this year in south Vermilion County.

The impetus for consolidation can be found in the hallway used by the high school portion of the school building for Jamaica Community Unit School District #12. When the buzzer sounds, the noise made by students as they check their lockers and move to the next class is muted by the high school’s small enrollment of around 115. Enrollment for the entire district is 523. But as small as it is, it still costs money to operate the Jamaica school system. And Jamaica district parent Brian Lane of Fairmount said they have had to make cuts every year.

“We’ve cut everything we possibly can”, said Lane. “The classroom sizes were starting to get larger. Instead of having two teachers for each class, we were down to one in some areas. And also in high school, the same way --- we were cutting out some of the educational programs I think were needed.”

The cuts have left bare-bones educational programs at both Jamaica High School, and the slightly larger high school in the neighboring Catlin district.  Catlin High doesn’t have agriculture or art programs. Jamaica High has only one teachers each for math and science. Neither has an industrial arts program. Both high schools send students make up for course offerings they can’t afford by busing students to Danville Area Community College to attend dual-credit, upper-level classes.

The two districts’ continuing financial problems have only been worsened by recent declines in Jamaica’s enrollment, and declines in state funding for public schools. That led the Jamaica and Catlin school boards explore the possibility of merging into one district. They formed a Committee of Ten to study the idea --- Brian Lane is one of the committee members.

Jamaica school board member Jeff Carder co-chairs the Committee of Ten. He said the panel considered other proposals for improving school finances as well, such as a jointly operated cooperative high school. Another item on the table was deactivation --- which means closing  a school in one district and sending students to the other district.

“Of course, nobody liked that idea”, said Carder of deactivation. “Nobody wants to lose a high school, so we scratched that one off pretty quick. And the co-op high school would have saved money, but not nearly as much as a consolidation. So we decided to go with the biggest money savings, which would be a consolidation.”

Some years ago, Jamaica and Catlin combined their high school sports programs, under the banner of the Salt Fork Storm. Under the consolidation plan, the two districts would combine entirely, into the new Salt Fork school district. The high school in Jamaica would close, as would the junior high school in Catlin. With larger enrollments at the remaining schools, the new district could reduce its staff, saving about half-a-million dollars a year, and use its remaining staff more efficiently. The consolidation plan would use existing school buildings, and backers don’t see the need for a hike in property taxes.

Catlin School Board President Jeff Fauver --- the other co-chair of the Committee of Ten --- said he has heard concerns in his district (the more compact of the two) about the daily bus rides junior high kids would now be taking to the Jamaica campus. But he says the alternative is making additional cuts in the classroom.

“If we don’t create some efficiencies through this consolidation, what other cuts could we see in Catlin?”, asks Fauver. “You really can’t cut too much more at the high school. So, now you’re going to start getting into your junior high and grade school. And do you really want those cuts? Or do you want your child to travel twelve miles to not experience those cuts?”

But if approved, the Jamaica-Catlin consolidation is expected to only slow down financial decline, not put an end to it. The Committee of Ten’s financial projections show fiscal problems returning after 2020. And the committee recommends that a future consolidated school board get to work quickly on plans for another consolidation with other nearby districts. This merger could create one high school to serve much or all of south Vermilion County.

The so-called south county high school idea is not a new one. A version of it was floated in 1991, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to consolidate Jamaica, Catlin and the adjacent Oakwood school district, with higher taxes for a new high school building included. But Catlin grade school teacher Kristen Strunga, another consolidation supporter, said things are different now.

“In 1991, we weren’t ready to give up our small town high schools”, said Strunga, a lifelong Catlin resident. “And look, we’ve made it until 2014. So, we didn’t have to do anything. But now, we have to. There really is not Option B. There is nothing else.”

William Phillips worked on the 1991 consolidation proposal, as part of a consulting firm hired by the Jamaica, Catlin and Oakwood school districts. Now an associate professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Phillips said Illinois’ small, rural school districts would benefit from more consolidation. But he said they rarely occur, because of parent’s worries about losing local identity and control when districts are merged. In Phillips’ view, those parents are looking at the issue from the wrong end.

“The question becomes, is this better for students?” said Phillips. “Parents have to get over the notion about their loss of identity and tradition, to get to the point where they have to look at it from the aspect of, is it better for the kids if we do this?”

But the consolidation plan continues to have skeptics. Besides the concerns in Catlin about busing their junior high school kids out of town to the Jamaica school, Jamaica residents have questions, too. Emails posted on the Committee of Ten website ask about conditions at Catlin’s 1920s-era high school building – two stories with no elevator. And they ask whether the more populous Catlin district will dominate elections for the new consolidated school board (board members would be chosen at large).

Backers of Catlin-Jamaica consolidation are sure to face more questions from voters, as they promote the idea during the six months between now and Election Day. An outreach committee formed by the Committee of Ten is planning to set up tables at summer festivals, such as the Catlin Strawberry Festival on June 7th. Public meetings on the proposal are planned for the fall.

Story source: WILL