CEL school building plans and new food regulations reviewed

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[October 24, 2012]  Members of the community crowded together in the media center at Chester-East Lincoln on Oct. 16. It was the regularly scheduled board of education meeting.

The meeting drew a little more than the usual attention with two presentations taking up a majority of the meeting. One presentation concerned construction projects that CEL may undertake, and the other was about problems the school is facing due to new food regulations.

Resident engagement committee construction proposal

For the last two months, CEL has had special meetings where members of the public were able to come to the school and meet with an architect from BLDD, an architectural firm from Decatur. During the course of those meetings, Todd Cyrulik, an employee of BLDD, explained what the district was hoping to accomplish by having the meetings.

Members of the community were also given the opportunity to provide ideas and suggestions for what they think should be done to improve the school and provide a more modern educational experience for the students.

At the meeting on Sept. 27, a vote was taken to determine which of eight potential plans would be presented to the school's board of education. The presentation was made by a group consisting of both faculty members and members of the community.

The group assembled to give the presentation consisted of Daniel Sheehan, Craig Strampp, Mark Mathon and Mark Shew, all four of whom are community members, along with Greg Hoffert, Jeannie Schutz and Jill Urish, who served as faculty advisers. Sheehan served as the spokesman for the group.

Sheehan provided a recap of the meetings and the group's goal. The plan presented to the board, titled Option 7, was the cheapest of the eight plans put together by BLDD. The plans were all conglomerations of various ideas that were suggested by parents and faculty members, including one designed by school administrators and one designed by BLDD.

Option 7 would provide the following changes to the school:

  • One of the art rooms would be expanded into what is currently being used as storage space.

  • The cafeteria would be moved to the center of the school and expanded. This would also isolate the kitchen and separate it from the cafeteria, as the kitchen would remain where it is currently.

  • The current main entrance would be sealed and a new entrance would be installed directly to the right. The main office would also be expanded in size with an increase in security measures.

  • A new media center would be built next to the new cafeteria, replacing what is currently a large classroom.

  • The plan also includes a number of upgrades to the school, such as electrical, HVAC and the replacement of old floor tile. These are referred to as status quo upgrades.

Altogether, Option 7 would cost $3.7 million to build. Out of all the plans, it has the least changes to the school.

After the presentation, members of the public were given the opportunity to make comments and voice concerns. Jim Rohrer, a farmer in Logan County, was one of the guests who expressed concerns.

Rohrer was concerned about the school's budget, specifically the education fund. He presented numbers on the ending balances in that fund the last four years.

"In July 2009, four years ago, your (CEL) education fund had an ending balance of $955,000. Today, your current budget that you passed last month, (the) ending balance is at $498,000," he said.

These numbers indicate that this year, the ending balance would be 48 percent of the ending balance in 2009. As a result, Rohrer called into question whether or not the school wants to educate students or add on to the school. Rohrer acknowledged that the state government is far behind on payments to schools, but there still appears to be a problem with overspending.

"You either have some serious spending problems, or you have a lack of revenue. We always go back to Washington or Springfield and talk about their problems, but we have it here on the local level," said Rohrer.

Board member Leslie Starasta replied that the proposed building plan would be paid for out of two separate funds, neither of which would be the education fund; 95 percent of the education fund is used for personnel costs. Furthermore, she and board vice president Kenny Golden both stated that the district would do as much as possible to avoid raising taxes to pay for any projects.

"The 1 percent sales tax is what we're focused on primarily to pay for the improvements," said Golden. Golden also said that everything still remains in the planning stages at this point.

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Former board president Jeff Brooks echoed Rohrer's concerns about cost and asked the board where the money to pay for this project would be coming from.

Superintendent Jennifer Hamm reiterated that most of the money would come out of the 1 percent sales tax, which would provide $1.5 million. The district also has access to a reserve of $1.2 million. The rest could be covered by grants and financial bonds.

It was also noted that out of the $3.7 million the project would cost, $2.9 million of it would be status quo upgrades. Hamm also said that in December a more detailed list would be provided as to specific costs.

Food service

Karen Beverlin, business and compliance manager, also gave a presentation to the board. Her presentation concerned the new USDA guidelines for student lunches. These guidelines have proven to be difficult for many schools in Illinois to adjust to.

There are a number of issues that have arisen because of the new guidelines:

  • A lot of the food that students enjoyed eating previously has too much sodium or too much grain, so those foods have to be taken away.

  • The same is true with foods that are high in sugar or fat. For example, the school now has to serve fat-free milk, which a lot of students do not like to drink.

  • The school also now has to provide a serving of fruits and vegetables every day. While the school wants to see the students eat healthy, they cannot force the students to eat their lunch, but they do have to make them take it off the lunch line.

  • As a result of the lack of choices students are willing to eat, a lot of the food gets thrown away. A cafeteria worker present at the meeting said it is "unbelievable how much gets thrown away."

The new guidelines went into effect Oct. 1, and the school has to provide a menu to the USDA each week in order to be evaluated. However, the school did not receive the required software used to evaluate their menu until after the guidelines were issued.

The school was found in compliance with the guidelines, aside from a few too many snacks and providing too many grains.

Should the school choose to ignore the new guidelines, they could serve more food that students like to eat, but they would lose nearly half of their cafeteria budget (or just over $40,000), as the state government would cease to provide the financial support that comes along with the guidelines. As a result, CEL would have to charge students $4 per day to eat lunch.

Because of these problems, the entire menu will be re-evaluated starting with November.

Beverlin provided a possible solution: The school could try moving closer to a "hot lunch"-type menu, similar to District 27. This would provide a greater variety of food the school could serve. However, that would require the school to hire someone to wash trays every day or use styrofoam or plastic trays, both of which would put strain on the cafeteria budget. These options would cost $4,400 and $2,500, respectively.

Another problem the school is experiencing with lunches stems from a lack of time for students to eat. Because there are so many students at the school, CEL has moved from three lunch periods to four. As a result, there is less time in each lunch period, and some students are having difficulty eating all of their food, even if they brought food from home they were willing to eat.

Board members present were Keith Birnbaum, president; Kenny Golden, vice president; Tina Warfel; Larry Hall; Ben Roland; Joel Vinson; Leslie Starasta; and Superintendent Jennifer Hamm.


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