After a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion, members of the Litchfield School Board approved the administration’s plan to re-open schools this fall, as part of their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday evening, July 20.
Superintendent Dr. Greggory Fuerstenau told the board they know things will continue to evolve and change in the coming weeks, but asked for guidance from the board in terms of mask-wearing when school starts next month.
Dr. Fuerstenau said the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending all students need to be in masks, and asked for the board to cast a vote on how they felt.
“It’s not my decision,” said Dr. Fuerstenau, noting other school districts in the area had voted for optional masks when school resumes. “What it comes down to is that we know how to run schools.”
The district plan includes regular hand washing and sanitizing, but no morning temperature checks. Dr. Fuerstenau said they will still practice social distancing when possible.
Students will be given the choice of a locker (with access three times a day) or carrying a clear backpack. New principal Juletta Ellis said some of those are hallway safety measures, not necessarily related to COVID.
The district is also planning to return to full-day school sessions five days a week, with lunch for all students in the cafeteria. Maintenance staff will continue with the same rigorous cleaning schedule as last year, including wiping down student desks several times a day.
“We’ve been given local control on most of the items, except for buses,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “At this time, the state requires students on buses to wear masks.”
Dr. Fuerstenau added that if the board decided on optional masks, parents would be responsible if a student was quarantined based on contact tracing. According to CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines, if a student was wearing a mask during the close contact, he or she would not have to quarantine for ten days this school year. Dr. Fuerstenau said they are still awaiting quarantine guidance from the Montgomery County Health Department.
Dr. Fuerstenau added that the school district nurses will have access to the names of students who have been vaccinated, but that the COVID vaccine will not be required to attend school this fall.
In opening the discussion, board member Ron Anglin said he felt parents should decide whether or not they want to send their students to school in masks. Board President Julie Abel agreed, noting that any decision is subject to change as guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health could change as well.
Board member Gregg Hires said he spoke to 70 parents in the school district, and only one was in favor of students returning to school in masks this fall.
“Are you standing with the people or against the people?” Hires asked fellow board members. “My stance is that I’m done. I’m not discounting COVID, but I think we need to do our job here.”
Dr. Fuerstenau asked him if that meant he didn’t want district maintenance staff to maintain a rigorous cleaning schedule.
“I’m a free-will kind of guy,” Hires replied.
Dr. Fuerstenau said that if the district doesn’t follow state guidelines, they can lose accreditation and possibly funding.
“We are trying to get our kids back to school five days a week,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.
Abel said she felt the district did a fantastic job getting through the trials of the pandemic last year.
“This is Gregg with the people, and they want things back to normal,” Hires said.
Dr. Fuerstenau reminded the board that administrators and staff were the ones who would be dealing with the decisions the board made.
“We’re boots on the ground,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “We have to deal with it. I had a brother who was on a ventilator with COVID. It’s nothing to mess with. And who are people going to scream at when their student is quarantined?”
Hires said he felt the district should strongly recommend masks on buses, but still give parents the choice.
Board member Mike Fleming said he agreed with listening to the people, but was also concerned about the district’s liability in the mask issue. He felt the district re-opening plan should use the wording provided by the CDC that masks were recommended in schools for students who were not yet vaccinated.
Board member Mark Bloome agreed. He said he felt it was important to keep masks on for students who ride the bus.
“Look, we’ve been in big groups all summer with select ball, and not one kid has been sick,” Hires said. “I said it last year, and we had no major outbreaks.”
Abel said she felt one reason they didn’t have any major outbreaks was due to the safety measures taken by the district personnel.
“It only takes one, Gregg,” said board member Valerie Cain. “One person can infect a large group.”
Board member David Belusko asked if students would be eating lunch in classrooms this year, and Dr. Fuerstenau said they would return to the cafeteria. Belusko also asked about athletics, and Dr. Fuerstenau said the district had not yet received any guidance on fall sports from the IDPH or the IHSA.
Discussion returned to masks on buses, and Hires said he felt the parents wanted a choice. Dr. Fuerstenau said the requirement came from the state superintendent, and board members tended to agree with the administration.
“Say it with me, ‘I’m smarter than the parents,’” Hires told the board. “People should know what you guys stand for.”
The board would unanimously approve the district’s re-opening plan as presented, with the wording to recommend masks for unvaccinated students and staff, but not require masks. In a separate vote, the board upheld the state ruling to require masks on buses 5-2 with Hires and Belusko voting no.
Belusko asked when the masks on buses issue could be brought up again, and Dr. Fuerstenau said when state guidelines change. Belusko felt the state was often quick to make requirements, but slow to remove them. Dr. Fuerstenau said they could revisit the matter at the August meeting before school starts.
“I’m gonna bring this up every month until we quit going against the people’s plan,” Hires said.
Litchfield schools officially open with a partial day on Friday, Aug. 13.
In addition to the district re-opening plan, the board got an update on the Litchfield Elementary School project on State Street.
“Now we’re to the good part,” said Dr. Fuerstenau. “After tonight, we’re all systems go. It’s exciting that we got to this point.”
Emily Spindler of FGM Architects presented final drawings to the board and said there were no major changes since the June meeting. Dr. Fuerstenau added that Ameren would be working on the soil removal where the school’s parking lot would be.
Hires asked if any of the board members had gotten feedback from the public after drawings of the building were printed in local media. Abel said they hadn’t heard anything.
Eric Lohman of Poettker Construction, who serves as the project manager, told the board the project is still on budget at $13.5 million, with a 5 percent contingency built in. Fleming said he thought the budget was closer to $12 million. Dr. Fuerstenau said they applied for federal ESSR funding of about $1 million to help cover the HVAC costs, which marked the change in the budget.
At the June meeting, Poettker Construction was authorized to go out for pre-bids for precast concrete and steel, as those are projected to take longer. Lohman said they will open those bids on Aug. 5 for approval at the August board meeting.
In July, the board authorized Poettker Construction to go out to bid for the remainder of the project. Those bids will be opened on Sept. 2, for approval at the September board meeting.
Abel asked when the company will break ground, and Corey Noder of Poettker Construction said that’s scheduled this spring. He said that all projects have to wait around 22 weeks for steel joists. He said they took some out of the project to help with costs and used precast concrete instead, but that they couldn’t take all the steel out of the project.
Cain asked when the project would be completed, and Lohman said it’s a 14-month project expected to be complete in mid-2023.
The district approved a first reading of dozens of policy updates provided by Press Plus. They will be approved at the August meeting.
Board members also approved the calendar for board meetings for the coming year. They switched from meeting on the third Thursday of each month to the third Tuesday of each month to allow for better communication with the city of Litchfield, who also meets on the third Thursday.
Meetings will be held in the Radius Room at Litchfield High School, beginning at 6 p.m. Two exceptions to the third Tuesday schedule are meetings on Thursday, Dec. 16 and Tuesday, April 26, due to conflicts with Christmas and spring breaks for the district.
Mayor Steve Dougherty and City Clerk Carol Burke were also in attendance at the meeting. Dougherty thanked the board for being willing to move their meeting to allow for better communication between the two entities. He said they will continue to work on traffic patterns in the downtown area near the new school to make sure students are safe.
New high school principal Juletta Ellis gave a brief presentation to the board on a new freshman orientation program called Panther 100, with a goal of 100 percent participation at the event, and a long-term goal of 100 percent graduation rate.
Ellis said freshman orientation will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 10, from 2 to 6:30 p.m. Their hope is to pair freshman with upper classmen in hopes of engaging them more in school activities. The event will feature a Kona ice truck, T-shirts, food truck and more.
Fleming asked if she reached out to students on social media platforms like Snapchat, and Ellis said she did not, that she would have to look more into the safety of that endeavor first. The district does use several texting programs and apps to reach out to students and parents currently.
Board members approved the consent agenda, which included authorizing the superintendent to prepare the budget for the coming year and approving hazardous routes. Both are done every year, and the hazardous routes provides access to buses for students who live within a mile and a half of the school but might have to cross a dangerous intersection or a railroad crossing. Dr. Fuerstenau said it was the same as last year.
The board approved payment of $878,587 in July bills, including $427,847 from the education fund, $30,272 from operations and maintenance, $48,671 from transportation, $199,375 for capital projects and $172,422 from tort. Among the bills was an upfront payment for services to Mid-State Special Education, which provides that group with operating funds.
In his treasurer’s report, Dr. Fuerstenau noted the balance of all district funds was $29.5 million as of June 30. That includes $7.1 million in operating funds, $13.6 million in capital projects and $7.6 million in health life safety.
The superintendent said that due to additional federal funds earmarked for COVID relief, the district had a balanced budget for last year. He added they are anticipating an additional $267,000 in tier money from the state of Illinois, from evidence based funding. They won’t know final numbers until general state aid payments are made on Aug. 10.
Dr. Fuerstenau said they will continue utilizing federal ESSR 2 funding this school year and next school year with ESSR 3 funding coming into play the following two years. He added that the state did make all its categorical grant payments last year, and currently did not owe the district any funding.
“All in all, financially it didn’t end up as rough as we thought it might,” said Dr. Fuerstenau.
There was no public comment at the meeting or anyone who asked to speak during the citizens’ agenda.
In a building and grounds update, Dr. Fuerstenau said the parking lot at the middle school looks good, and they fixed the storm sewer. They hope to fix the high school parking lot next summer. Anglin asked if the district would be opposed to the JFL program buying a new air conditioner for the press box, and Dr. Fuerstenau said they weren’t aware it had a problem. The district will look into getting it fixed.
In his report, Dr. Fuerstenau said that online registration is currently underway, and the district will once again submit a waiver to the USDA that all students can receive a free breakfast or lunch meal at no cost. He encouraged parents to still fill out the paperwork for free and reduced lunches as it helps with school fees and other programs.
At the end of the meeting, the board spent nearly an hour in closed session. They decided that closed session minutes from January 2021 to June 2021 need to remain closed for confidentiality reasons.
They also adopted a resolution to rescind any and all disciplinary actions taken against a staff member on Oct. 23, 2018. Hires voted present.
In personnel items, the board approved family medical leave for band director Cassie Lord-Remmert-McKorkle from Oct. 17 through Jan. 3.
They accepted the resignations of Lance Boldt as high school social science teacher and head boys basketball coach and Brittany Boldt as high school family and consumer science teacher. Hires voted against both motions.
They also accepted the resignation of Leanne Tumpach as instructional tutor at Russell School. They approved the voluntary transfer of Misty Tooley from life skills special education aide at Colt School to fifth grade special education classroom aide at Russell School.
The board hired Tamera Cleaver as a third grade special education classroom aide. They approved the voluntary transfer of Nicole Logan from fifth grade special education classroom aide at Russell School to kitchen manager and the voluntary transfer of Katie Steinbach as clerical aide at Russell School to clerical aide at the high school.
They accepted the resignation of Alex Plovich as instructional tutor. They hired Janice Fleming as an instructional tutor with a professional educator’s license at Colt School. Fleming abstained from the vote.
They hired Justin Ripley as audio visual coordinator and Patty Goforth as National Honor Society sponsor at the high school.
In sports news, they hired Chris Bates as head high school boys soccer coach with Keating Monroe as the assistant coach. They hired Dr. Russ Tepen, middle school principal, as the eighth grade boys basketball coach. They also hired Clay Murphy and Colten Faure as assistant football coaches. In a final motion, they approved adding the position of paid middle school wrestling coach starting this year.
The board also approved an increase from 178 to 180 working days for non-certified personnel, including classroom aides, special education aides, instructional tutors and instructional tutors with professional educators’ licenses. Bloome and Fleming both voted present.
The meeting adjourned at 8:48 p.m. Board members will meet again on Tuesday, Aug. 17, beginning at 6 p.m. in the Radius Room at Litchfield High School.