Litchfield School Board Hears Update As New School Year Begins In August

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“We’re just trying to keep kids in school,” said Litchfield Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau in his report at the regular school board meeting on Tuesday evening, Aug. 17, at Litchfield High School. All board members were present.

Dr. Fuerstenau reported that school started on Friday for students. As of Tuesday’s meeting, the district had three students and two staff members at the high school that tested positive for COVID. 

Although some students are in quarantine as a result of the positive cases, the district is able to use the “test to stay” method for some students because of the universal masking of students and staff. 

Those in quarantine were in close contact with a positive case while not wearing a mask, such as in the cafeteria for lunch or in the hallways. Siblings of positive cases are also required to quarantine at home.

Students who have been vaccinated for COVID (which is currently only available for students ages 12 and up), are not required to quarantine.

“That’s the rules whether people like them or not,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “I don’t create the rules, but there are ramifications.”

District-wide, 71 students were considered in close contact. However, 44 of those students qualified for the “test to stay” policy, meaning they do a rapid test at school on days one, three, five and seven after close contact. All parents must sign a waiver for students to be tested, and reports are sent to the county health department.

“Whether you like the masks or not, it gives us the opportunity to keep kids in school,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.

He also urged parents not to send their children to school if they are sick.

Dr. Fuertenau told the board this year is off to a better start than last year as the district is able to offer full days of school, five days a week. In addition, all athletic teams in season are practicing and preparing for meets. He added that the high school band has 95 students and is practicing to take the field at the first home football game.

This year, students are also able to eat lunch in the cafeteria, use their lockers and dress for physical education classes.

“We do have some concerns, but we’re working on it,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “And we will continue to do that.”

He added that students have been respectful and polite about wearing masks at school, and not one student has been defiant.

During the administrators’ reports, building principals shared enrollment numbers to start the school year. 

At the pre-K, Director Adam Favre said they have 116 students of their 120-student capacity. They are required to leave four slots open for students who qualify for an IEP (individualized education plan) when they turn three. There is a waiting list of 19 students. Favre said they haven’t had a waiting list in many years, and it could help them to secure more state funding in the coming years for early childhood education. He added they give priority to at-risk students and four-year-olds first.

At Madison Park, Favre said they have a total of 144 students, including 73 in five sections of kindergarten and 71 in four sections of first grade. Principal Jeremy Heigert reported 180 students at Colt, with 90 students in five sections of second grade and 87 students in four sections of third grade. At Russell, Heigert said they have a total of 166 students, including 87 in four sections of fourth grade and 79 in four sections of fifth grade.

Dr. Russ Tepen, principal at Litchfield Middle School, said they have been spending time getting to know students and building relationships after last year. The middle school has a total of 277 students with 80 in sixth grade, 81 in seventh grade and 116 in eighth grade.

At the high school, Principal Juletta Ellis reported enrollment of 399. She added that the new freshman orientation program had over 90 percent attendance and was very engaging. She thanked 60 upperclass students and staff for helping with the event. Board member Mike Fleming praised Ellis and her staff for the excellent event.

Board member Val Cain asked all administrators if the enrollment numbers were about what was expected. Dr. Fuerstenau said they were pretty close to what was anticipated, but slightly down from last year. Cain also asked if there was any change in the enrollment numbers after the board instituted the universal mask requirement, and Dr. Fuerstenau said he wasn’t sure and they didn’t really have any way to track that.

In closing his remarks, Dr. Fuerstenau gave a shout out to the district’s three school nurses for working around the clock for students.

“Day one, they hit the ground running, and will continue to do so,” he said.

Building Project

The board approved bids for pre-cast concrete and steel for the State Street elementary school project. Those items were bid early because of an expected delay to receive them. Eric Lohman of Poettker Construction said they were pleased the bids came in only around $19,000 off budget.

“That’s pretty good on $2.5 million worth of work,” he told the board.

A dozen vendors bid on the two packages, and the lowest bidders were contacted to make sure they meet the requirements of the project.

For the pre-cast concrete, the board awarded the bid to MPC Enterprises in Mt. Pleasant, IA, for $1.5 million. For the steel, they awarded the bid to Tri-County Welding and Fabrication in Arthur for $1.0 million. Lohman told the board his company has worked with both vendors and had no problems with either. Board member Gregg Hires voted present on both motions.

Next up for the building will be a bid package for the remainder of the work. Bids will be due Sept. 2, and awarded at the September board meeting. Dr. Fuerstenau said they anticipate representatives from 50 to 60 vendors on site when the bids are opened.

Board member Mike Fleming asked Lohman if the vendors have to offer a bond for the contracts, and Lohman said they do. Fleming also asked if the vendors could sell the contracts, and Lohman said no. They can sub-contract with others to do the work, but the vendor will be obligated to fulfill the contract.

Dr. Fuerstenau said the project remains on budget at this point, and the district is excited to get started.

Other Business

The board also approved the tentative budget presented by Dr. Fuerstenau. It will be on display in the unit office for 30 days, prior to a budget hearing on Tuesday evening, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m.

The nearly $40 million budget includes an almost $11 million deficit, mostly made up of expenses from the new building project. Bonds have already been procured for that project.

Dr. Fuerstenau said that due to federal ESSER funds for COVID relief, the district came out better than expected last year. They are currently working on a three-year plan utilizing ESSER money to keep the district from using up its savings. The district is also expected to receive additional state funding this year from the evidence-based funding, which they did not get last year.

“From a budget standpoint, we are in good shape,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.

The board also gave permission for the district to apply for a $50,000 school maintenance grant from the state. They previously received the matching grant for HVAC work at the high school. If approved, they would use this grant to replace the parking lots behind the high school and fix the sidewalks at that building. The grant is funded through the Rebuild Illinois program. Both motions passed unanimously with Hires voting present.

The board approved the consent agenda (with Hires voting present), which included payment of August bills, totalling $354,535. That includes $253,280 from the education fund, $35,294 from operations and maintenance, $21,301 from transportation, $38,975 from capital projects and $5,685 from tort.

In his treasurer’s report, Dr. Fuerstenau said the district has a total fund balance of $31 million, including $8.1 million in operating expenses, $13.5 million in capital projects and $7.7 million in health life safety.

Dr. Fuerstenau noted that as things have opened back up, the district’s sales tax has also increased substantially under the county-wide 1 percent sales tax.

Under old business, the board approved a list of policy updates from Press Plus services, with Hires voting no.

Citizens Agenda

Although no one asked to speak during the public input portion of the meeting, three individuals contacted the superintendent ahead of the meeting and asked to address the board. Board President Julie Abel reminded the speakers they each had five minutes, and all were asked not to name students or staff members by name.

Kyle Bishop spoke first, reading remarks written by his son. 

“Masks are a hard thing to get behind because we are forced to do things against our will,” Bishop said. 

He added that masks can make students feel shy or lose focus in class.

“It makes it harder for the students and school is meant to be for them,” Bishop read.

Next to speak was Craig Hires, who offered his thoughts on some optics of the district. Hires said he has watched previous meetings online and mentioned a paper missing from a packet during a meeting, questioning if that was common practice. He also questioned why it was denied to go into closed session when a board member wanted to.

“I think if a board member has something they want to discuss in closed session, they should be able to do it,” Hires said.

Hires added he felt the district was only following the mask mandate to appease the governor. He felt there were some issues with multiple district apps offering different schedules which was confusing. 

Hires also questioned why the district has had three high school boys basketball coaches in the last year, including one that left 30 days after being hired. He also said he offered his services and that of other volunteers to fix the baseball field, but their offers were turned away.

“We gotta do better,” Hires said.

The final speaker was Hires’ brother and school board member Gregg Hires, who focused his remarks on the mask mandate.

“It’s just dominated my thoughts,” he said. “I can’t do anything else. I’m not worried about the new school. I’m worried about the kids that come to school and doing it as normal as we can.”

Hires encouraged the board to reach out to district employee Dr. David Lett, who also serves on the Illinois State Board of Education, to ask questions of the state board on the mask mandate. He also encouraged the board to work together with other county school boards (Hillsboro, Panhandle and Nokomis) to push back against the statewide mask mandate.

“The majority of the people said optional masks,” Hires said. “I know why you guys made the decision you did, but I based mine on what the majority want.”

Information Items

In addition to the reports on the first day of school, Dr. Fuerstenau presented information to the board from the Cook Center for Human Connection about providing free mental health assistance to families. He said district counselors are reviewing the program and will provide more information to the board.

In buildings and grounds news, Dr. Fuerstenau reported drainage work was completed at the high school. They are also working on draining issues at the practice football field with the city and the National Guard.

Dr. Fuerstenau reported two FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, one from resident Carol Burke with information from the Aug. 5 meeting, as well as one from Smart Procure about district accounting.

Personnel

The board did not go into closed session before approving the personnel report.

They approved an FMLA (family medical leave) for Hannah Tomazzoli from Sept. 26 through Jan. 2022.

They accepted the resignation of construction trades teacher Elbert Jones, effective Aug. 6. They also approved the hiring of Sandra Mullen as special education classroom aide at the high school. All motions passed unanimously with Hires voting present.

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