Macoupin County Federation of Teachers Local 528, the union representing Community Unit School District 7 teachers, alleged the board and administration precipitated the resignation of a long-time physical education teacher whose resignation was accepted during a special meeting of the School Board on Wednesday night. The board also ratified the sale of six city lots owned by the district to the City of Gillespie with the expressed intent to use proceeds of the sale to pay for a portion of a project currently underway to eliminate the “hairpin” turn-around in front of Gillespie Middle School and improve drainage.
Before taking action in open session, the board met for 70 minutes, nearly an hour of which was held in consultation with school attorney Rick Verticchio, in executive session.
Upon returning to open session, the board unanimously accepted the resignation of elementary physical education teacher John Wiemers “with regrets” on a motion by Bill Carter, seconded by Dennis Tiburzi.
“John has been with the district for 15 years,” Board President Mark Hayes said after the vote. “He was a very valued employee and he will be missed.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Local 528 President Michelle Smith acknowledged it was too late to “undo” Wiemers’ resignation, but urged the board and administration to consider hiring two physical education teachers to handle the number of PE students as Wiemers recommended to the administration in May.
“It is our understanding that Mr. Wiemers has been asking for an additional PE teacher since the passing of Lana Odorizzi in 2014,” Smith read from the statement. “It is obvious that his requests have not been considered and it’s unfortunate that we are losing a valued staff member that didn’t get the support necessary.”
Still reading from the statement, Smith said PE class sizes have burgeoned to more than 50 students because Odorizzi’s position was not filled five years ago. “The lack of action affects over 600 students,” she said. “We need to again consider what is best for kids.”
In addition to class sizes topping 50 students, Smith said Wiemers had to cope with a growing number of special needs students being mainstreamed into his classes without adequate special needs support. She said student safety also was a concern when two to four classes of students are present in one gym with six doors, none of which can be locked in the event of a school lockdown or similar emergency. Under such circumstances, she said, the safety of 50 or more students would become the responsibility of just two adult staff members.
“The Union understands that we cannot undo a resignation from Mr. Wiemers, however, let’s do what’s best for our students and consider hiring two elementary PE teachers to replace him,” Smith read.
While not disputing the union statement, Supt. Joe Tieman said the board has considered hiring a second physical education teacher but opted to expand the teaching staff in other areas first. “Do I think John Wiemers is wrong? I don’t. Do I think the union is wrong? I don’t,” Tieman said. “It becomes a matter of priority.”
Tieman acknowledged that for the past few years, Wiemers has been the only certificated teacher overseeing PE classes that have essentially doubled in size. However, he said, a paraprofessional (teacher aide) works with Wiemers. “So there isn’t just one staff member,” Tieman said. “There are two.”
Additionally, when special needs students are present, Wiemers and the paraprofessional are joined by a special needs paraprofessional. When that happens, he said the staff to student ration is about 1:17. “That’s an even better student to staff ratio than most classrooms,” he said.
While the board declined to add a second physical education teacher, Tieman said, the district added upward of $450,000 worth of new positions last year. In the coming school year, he said the district will add another $300,000 in new salaries and supplies.
“We asked teachers what they needed,” Tieman said. “We couldn’t do all of them.” He said the No. 1 priority among teachers was adding a resource officer, which has been done. The district also added a Response to Intervention Coordinator, a new computer technology position, additional special education staff and a third high school science teacher.
“We don’t know what our state aid will be next year,” Tieman said. “If it increases, it will be our job to decide how to best spend that money. We may be coming back to union leadership to ask ‘What do you need?’.”
Board member Weye Schmidt said the board was not aware of the situation that precipitated Wiemers’ resignation. “I felt terrible and I know other board members felt terrible,” Schmidt said, “but it was already done.”
With Schmidt voting “no,” the board took a series of actions to facilitate the sale of six lots owned by the school district and located south of the city water treatment plant to the City of Gillespie for a total price of $24,000. A resolution authorizing the sale earmarks proceeds of the sale to underwrite the $26,000 cost of an alternate bid submitted by DeLaurent Construction last month in conjunction with a project to eliminate the hairpin turn-around in front of the Middle School and eliminate the potential for flooding in the area.
The Gillespie City Council agreed to buy the property Monday night, contingent upon the School Board’s concurrence. The property will be used for a $387,000 project to install a solar panel field that will supply power for the water treatment plant.
The board voted 4-2 last month to accept DeLaurent’s $150,000 base bid to remove the hairpin turn-around, install drainage infrastructure and repave the street nearest the construction site to the center line. The alternate bid calls for paving the remainder of the street.
The board voted 6-1 to accept the alternate bid on a motion by Jenni Alepra, seconded by Don Dobrino. Schmidt, one of the two board members voting against the original project, said he voted against the alternate contract because the “bid doesn’t have a contingency” for ditches to be cleaned out and for damaged culverts to be replaced. “Without that, water is going to continue to sit,” he said.
“We have a verbal commitment from Mayor John Hicks,” Tieman said, that ditches including those on the east side of Illinois Route 16 will be cleaned out and that damaged culverts will be replaced. “I’m confident the city will clean out those ditches.”
Schmidt also cast the only negative vote on approving a resolution authorizing the sale of the property to the city and earmarking the money for the alternate bid contract.
“I’ll be voting no because there’s nothing in the resolution binding the city to clean the ditches and replace the culverts,” he said.
“The reason we didn’t add it is that I trust the world of Mayor Hicks that it will be done,” Tieman commented.
Schmidt suggested there should be no problem with adding the language if the board implicitly trusts the city to perform the work.
Citing the same objection, Schmidt also voted “no” on a motion by Alepra, seconded by Hayes, to execute a corporate quick claim deed transferring the six lots to the city.
The board is scheduled to meet in regular session on Monday, July 22.