CEL renovations bring building up to the quality of educators

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[August 30, 2013]  The August meeting of the Chester-East Lincoln Board of Education was preceded by the quarterly question-and-answer session. The board and the superintendent use this time every few months to answer questions from the community.

Q-and-A session

Several of the guests present for the Q-and-A session before the meeting commented on the renovations to the school, such as the new commons area and the entryway. Multiple guests said they are excited to hear from the students when they see the improvements to the building.

Former board member Larry Hall said he wanted to thank the taxpayers of Logan County and those who spend money in the county for providing the 1 percent sales tax. That tax is being used to pay for the financial bonds that will pay for the renovations.

"The sales tax was a very wise decision from the voters," said Hall.

Sue Barker asked if the public could be told any of the specifics as to a recent resignation settlement from an unspecified employee. Superintendent Jennifer Hamm explained that by law, she could not reveal the information at the Q-and-A, though if members of the public would be interested, the information can be requested from the office.

On the topic of technology, Hamm said that the school received a grant from the Woods Foundation this year. The money from the grant was used to buy 60 iPads for the school.

Jill Urish, a teacher at CEL, asked if it would be possible for Hamm to provide an explanation to the public on exactly how the school budget works. Urish said she hopes to see clarification for those who might not understand where the school's money comes from.

Hamm said there will be a budget hearing at the next board meeting, which has been moved to Sept. 18. Hamm said that in the past there has not been a large attendance at budget hearings, but she will be happy to help people understand the process.

On the topic of finances, Hamm said that for this year, the district will be losing $75,000 in general state aid. She said the loss is likely due to a drop in enrollment last year. Hamm said that with the increase in enrollment for this year, the state aid should be higher in the future.

On a positive note, Hamm said the school will not be losing any money in the transportation fund for this year, but the subject will likely come up again in the Illinois Legislature next year.

The board was asked how much longer was needed for the renovations to be complete. Hamm said that as of Aug. 20, the construction was likely around 95 percent finished, with a large number of small items that needed to be completed. She also said the school has used $22,000 of a $32,000 contingency fund, which she considers to be good compared with the scope of the whole project. Hamm added that the construction teams from BLDD, CTS and Christy-Foltz have done a wonderful job with the renovations in the building.

Hamm said the district received a $60,000 grant from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, so some of the remaining items that need to be addressed in the building can be set aside for the future.

A guest asked what the enrollment numbers are looking like for this school year. Hamm said that so far, the enrollment is around 269 students, and it is still subject to change as the year begins.

On the topic of the students, Hamm said that the swimming program will still be offered to the third-graders of CEL. They will use the Lincoln College pool, and the college swim team will assist in teaching the students.

Hamm also said that starting next year, the school will be required by Erin's Law to teach children of all grades about recognizing sexual abuse and how to respond if it is brought up by others. Board member Lori Birnbaum said she has sat in on the lessons that are given to the students, and she said they are very helpful. Hamm said parents will be given the choice to opt out.

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Regular board meeting

During the public recognition portion of the meeting, board member Ben Roland made a statement to the audience.

Roland reminded everyone that no money was used from the education fund to pay for the school renovations. The education fund and the 1 percent sales tax are completely separate items in the school budget.

"There has been an attempt to say that if there are problems in the ed. fund, that the work on the building is responsible for that, or the other way around," said Roland. "Those things are not factual."

Roland said the idea that the bonding for the renovations was used to work around the voters is misleading. The bonds were sold as they were in order to make a deadline for construction to begin; otherwise, the school year would have had to be drastically altered to make the schedule work. In addition, a petition to stop the original general obligation bonds was filed in January, which was after a series of public meetings with the intention of informing the community of the process.

"We heard the voice of the people when they gave us the 1 percent sales tax," said Roland. "We put that money to work."

Roland said other schools in the area have done the same thing with the sales tax, without the potential need for a referendum.

"We have excellent teachers in this school; we have great staff and aides. ... That's been part of Chester-East for a long time. In the last two years, look at what's happened to this place," said Roland. "This building finally matches what's been going on in here for years."

Roland said he is frustrated at the idea that there are people in the community who can look at the accomplishments of the district and still be unhappy with where things are going.

"If you have questions or challenges, I'd be happy to talk to anyone about it. ... I don't have any explanation for any of it, other than a personality issue with Jennifer Hamm," he said.

Roland said people with questions and concerns should always feel welcome to speak to the school board.

"If there is no smoking gun or no incompetence, and now we move on and it becomes a thing of personal grinding," said Roland.

Roland said he wants to leave the past issues behind him, and he would like to see everyone move forward together on the school's behalf.

"If you don't see success here, you're not looking," said Roland.

Roland sat back down to applause from the audience and thanked the board for latitude on the amount of time he took to speak.

Later in the meeting, Hamm recommended to the board that in order to make up for a deficit in the education fund, the district can transfer money from the working cash fund. Hamm said the working cash fund works like a savings account, and it can be used in this way.

Hamm said that a recent discussion with an auditor indicated that despite the hardships CEL will be facing, the district is still in good financial shape.

As part of the action items for the evening, the board approved the hiring of Chelsea Landstrom as a special education instructional aide.

The board also approved the 2013-2014 United Healthcare insurance plan.

Board members present were Jeff Brooks, president; Lori Birnbaum, vice president; Tish Podunajec, secretary; Ben Roland; Kenny Golden; Randy Wolf; and Jason Toft. Superintendent Jennifer Hamm was also present.


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