While a community is divided by a three option plan to shut down several schools in Galesburg, President of the local Board of Education and Director of the Center for Intercultural Life Tianna Cervantez has found herself in a challenging position. Within the next few months the district will have to find a way to consolidate and update the outdated schools in town, while ensuring the public’s voice is heard.
The potential for extensive renovations of Galesburg schools in district 205 has left a mistrustful public and an incumbent board of education at odds. Originally a five option plan was unofficially shortened to a three option plan before being announced to the public. 40 million dollars from a Health and Life Safety budget will be potentially spent on the renovations. Another 16 million is expected to be drawn up from tax bonds. A decision on the options must be made by November in order to break ground for the summer.
A district with major funding problems:
“We have to go back a couple of years, because this is not a new conversation,” Cervantez said.
Cervantez explained after a teacher strike in 2015, the board realized they had to increase their savings. However, they did not want to raise taxes on an already heavily taxed district that was facing massive job loss.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have enough cash on hand to get us through the school year,” Cervantez said.
The following years were tumultuous in regards to financing the school. The then-superintendent of the district retired and a new superintendent, Dr. John Asplund, joined the district.
“The reality comes to us that enrollment is still declining and the other component to thisÉ we did our 10 year health and Life Safety inspection,” Cervantez said.
During a health safety inspection, architects and engineers are brought in by the district to look over the educational buildings. Many of the elementary schools did not meet building codes and were declared hazardous. The school invited a company called Philip & Phillip to construct buildings’ plans in Jan. 2017.
“Health and Life Safety and a different budget line. Health life safety money is raised through taxes and other entities, it has to be spent on that annual report,” Cervantez said.
According to Cervantez, when Asplund joined the board he looked at the plans but was unsatisfied. The architectural company Legat was hired by the board to create options that could address the problems district 205 faced.
For the board, the health safety budget came with the opportunity to address some of the major issues plaguing district 205 such as low enrollment rates, high class sizes and unequal educational opportunities. Instead of breaking the health safety budget into pieces for renovation in just the schools that needed it, they wanted to instead shut down those schools and consolidate the budget. That way a higher percentage of money could go towards a smaller pool of schools, thus major renovations for these schools became a possibility. This plan would be the only way the Galesburg High School could see a renovation as high as 8 million $.
According to the Register-Mail, a breakdown of the options are as followed:
Plan 1: Keep all current schools open. No change from current attendance assignments. Pre-K and admin at Lincoln Educational Center. Cost: Approximately $40 million.
Plan 2: Close Gale, Churchill, King; K-5 at Nielson, Silas Willard and Steele Elementary (district split into thirds); 6-8 school at Lombard Junior High; 9-12 school at GHS. Cost: Approximately $56 million.
Plan 3: Close Gale, Churchill, King; kindergarten at Nielson; 1-2 at Steele, 3-4 at Silas Willard; 5-6 at Lombard; 7-12 center at GHS. Cost: Approximately $56 million.
Plan 4: Close Gale, Churchill, King; K-4 at Nielson, Silas Willard and Steele 5-6 center at Lombard Junior High; 7-12 center at GHS. Cost: Approximately $56 million.
Plan 5: Close Gale, Nielson, Churchill; 1-4 at King, Silas Willard and Steele Elementary; 5-6 center at Lombard Junior High; 7-12 center at GHS; district office moved to GHS. Cost: Approximately $56 million.
According to Tom Martin, the editor-in-chief of the Register-Mail, before the public had any time to react to the plans, two of the options were shelved.
“The school board met Sept. 17 and had a meeting where the architect presented five options. At that meeting, the board sort of ruled out two options. We editorialized that they shouldn’t have ruled out any options before the public had a chance to look at them. The first time they had seen the light of day was at this meeting,” Martin said.
According to Cervantez, the two options that weren’t presented were options one and three. The board had meetings with the public before the five plan option was created, and from community feedback threw out some of the options before hand.
“As fiscal stewards of the district, we felt it was irresponsible for us to take option one to the community, which at that time was leaving the buildings as [they were] and doing the bare minimum, because in another 10 years another board would be sitting here with their hands tied having to do something about redoing the buildings,” Cervantez said.
Martin explained that by throwing some of the options out before the community had a chance to discuss, many members of the public felt left out of the conversation.
“One of the problems I think they’re having with the public is that these are concepts. They don’t really have it drawn out. They just produced some conceptual drawings of what it might look like… but it was the first glance at anything the public has seen,” Martin said.
According to Martin, another reason the public is unhappy with the options is because choices are being made quickly. He points to the November deadline and the fact that four of the board members are up for reelection this year as potential factors.
“We basically know an estimated cost and where the kids would go. We really don’t know much more: we don’t know the bussing patterns, we don’t know the details for instance, exactly where an addition would go in the high schoolÉ it seems like maybe they got ahead of things a little bit on Sept. 17. At least in the editorial board’s mind at the Register-Mail: slow this process down and get the people involved,” Martin said.
Martin is baffled that the school doesn’t have more tangible ideas for what the options would look like. So far, the school has not presented an idea of how much money would be saved in terms of the operational costs of shutting the school down. As a father of three, Martin feels as though the school hasn’t presented a compelling argument for parents either.
“As a parent, I want to know how these changes will improve the experience for my kids. I’m less concerned about buildings as I am for the teachers and the curriculum. If this changes things I need to hear an argument for that. If it does that significantly, there needs to be a case made that I haven’t heard yet,” Martin said.
He credits the district for the community meetings they’ve had so far and have planned for. However, he believes attendance in those meetings have been lacking.
“It may be a really good plan, there is just not many details. I hope the public can get involved and not just have a bad feeling about the school district because they weren’t involved in it. It’ll be tumultuous in the next few months and the school board has big decisions about whether to move ahead in November or not,” Martin said.
Senior Justin Dunn is an education and mathematics double-major. He did his observation at Galesburg High School.
“Some of these are not that bad of an idea. Especially because the elementary schools are kinda segregated. When I say kinda Ñ they are. Let’s be real. They’re segregated by wealthiness and socio-economic class. Racially as well,” Dunn said.
Dunn believes that consolidating the schools will be a good way to ensure that funding is spread equally between the students.
According to educational studies chair and former curriculum assistant superintendent Joel Estes, the history of Galesburg can account for some of the reasons why the schools face disparity.
“Back in 1980, there were 20 elementary schools. The student population was 9,400 kids. Today the student population is about 4,000 kids. Part of what happened was a lot of those small [schools] closed. Boundaries had to be drawn. I don’t think the intent was to draw boundary lines around socio-economic class, or considerations like race and ethnicity. The lines were drawn to keep neighborhood schools,” Estes said.
Despite the intention, Estes agreed that the schools were different in terms of make-up and even testing scores. However, he asserted that testing scores didn’t paint the entire picture of how well a school is doing.
In terms of consolidating the schools, Estes was hesitant to say whether or not he supported any of the plans. However, he believes the board has done a good job of keeping things transparent.
“It’s a very, very complex and emotionally volatile process. People have strong opinions and feelings about things like neighborhood schools, about where their children go to school,” Estes said. “I will say that I do not envy Superintendent Asplund or any of the school board in the process they’re going through right now.”
Senior Evan Berkey, another education major, believes consolidating the schools will help bring the community together. Berkey is currently a student teacher at Nielson. According to Berkey, not all of the schools have access to air-conditioning. He states that there are days where school needs to be let out early due to the weather. Furthermore, the students don’t have access to the same educational tools.
“They’ve built new schools and those schools are mainly in the areas of town that kids from richer economic families come fromÉ I know bigger schools like Silas [have] a lot more teachers and a lot more kids,” Berkey said.
Cervantez is also aware of the issue of segregation in district schools. As a board member, one of her core values is making sure every student has equal learning opportunities.
“Something I learned about the two middle schools wasÉ Churchill was receiving upwards of 50-plus minutes of core curriculum classroom discussion a day. Lombard was only receiving 44 minutes. That’s inequity,” Cervantez said.
According to Cervantez, many of the Galesburg 205 district households often migrate to other neighborhoods, where their kids can attend a different school still within the district.
“When you have families in town saying, ‘I want a house in that neighborhood so my kid can go to that school,’ that’s inequity. To my core, I don’t care who you are or what side of town you live in, your child and my child should have the same number of instruction minutes, should be learning the same material, should have the same ability to be apart of a classroom. I don’t think we have that right now,” Cervantez said.
Cervantez is aware that there has been some serious criticisms leveraged against the way the board has handled the plans. However, she believes the board has put in a considerable amount of time and effort into creating the plans for district 205. For Cervantez, creating policy that will better the lives of students and teachers is her utmost concern.
“When I was a community member not on the board, I admit to doing it too, I made snap judgements and assumed a lot of things. Knowing what I know now, I can say there is a lot of time that goes into this,” Cervantez said.
Though Cervantez has been on the board for three years, she feels as though she only has just begun to understand the financial intricacies of district 205. This is another reason why she wouldn’t want another board to have to make these choices.
“The board members I’ve been with . . . have made a considerable effort to include the community. I think the challenge is some community members are overwhelmed with their daily lives and may feel like their voices aren’t being heard. I get that. That’s why I ran,” Cervantez said.
For Cervantez one of the biggest challenges is making sure she hears from all parties that are concerned with the decision.
“A lot of the loudest voices may be sharing a particular opinion, but that’s not all the voices we’ve been hearing. That’s one of the challenges I see when people say we’re not listening to the community. We are. We’re listening to the whole community,” Cervantez said.
Lillie Chamberlin contributed reporting to this article.
Tom Martin is the faculty advisor for The Knox Student.