With the hours clicking down to his official retirement, Community Unit School District 7 Supt. Joe Tieman occasionally struggled with his emotions as he helmed the last school board meeting of his career Tuesday night. Tieman unexpectedly announced his retirement at the end of March, precipitating a flurry of board actions to reshuffle administrative assignments before the start of the new academic year on July 1.
As of July 1, former Gillespie High School Principal Shane Owsley assumed duties as superintendent. Former Middle School Principal Jill Rosentreter stepped into the high school principal’s office vacated by Owsley, and Gillespie resident Tara Cooper became the district’s new Middle School Principal.
For the first time since March, the board met face-to-face, convening in the Middle and High School cafeteria in order to observe social distancing protocols due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past three months, the board has met via the Zoom remote meeting platform during the state’s stay-at-home order issued in response to the pandemic.
Owsley steps into the superintendent’s role at a critical time for the school district as administrators and board members struggle with how the new school year will look when students return to class in August. Board President Mark Hayes announced that he expects the board will meet in special sessions every Monday throughout July to make decisions on how the district will respond to the continuing pandemic. While plans are being made for students to return to their classrooms in August, there is speculation that the health crisis could require the district to continue remote learning strategies that were put in place after the state’s stay-at-home order was issued.
During administrative reports to the board Tuesday night, each of the building principals mentioned preparations that are underway to clean and sanitize classrooms and other parts of the buildings, continue the training of staff members in remote teaching strategies and other protocols in response to COVID-19. Rosentreter pointed out that administrators and staff are following guidelines from public health officials and state government but noted “those guidelines are changing daily.”
Some decisions the board expects to make in the coming weeks could affect both certified and non-certified employees. For example, the board tabled action Tuesday night on rehiring coaches for fall sports pending a decision on what, if any, athletic programs will be offered in the fall. If the school year begins with remote learning protocols in place, decisions will be made about whether or not teachers will be required to be in their classrooms to offer instruction via the internet. Tieman noted that some of the decisions the board anticipates making will require negotiations with union representatives.
Anticipating the possible need for remote learning, the board last month approved the purchase of laptop computers to ensure all students have access to a computer. Owsley reported Tuesday night that the computers have been purchased, leaving about $19,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) funding the district is expected to receive. While providing computers for all District 7 students has been accomplished, Owsley said ensuring that all students have access to the internet may be a tougher assignment. At $15,000 to $30,000 per month, providing district-wide WiFi access is cost-prohibitive. As an alternative, Owsley said Technology Coordinator Mark Carpani is in the process of identifying areas throughout the district where students could achieve WiFi internet access through systems that already are in place. He said Carpani also is looking into providing internet access onboard school buses via AT&T.
Without taking a formal vote, the board concurred with Owsley’s decision to spend $9,000 to purchase four kiosks designed to automatically take the temperature of students, staff members and visitors entering each of the districts three attendance centers. Two of the kiosks will be located at the BenGil Elementary School, with one each installed at the High School and Middle School. Owsley said the units are capable of processing 30 to 40 persons per minute and will be used to monitor students who do not ride a bus to come to school. Students riding a bus will have their temperatures taken by bus aides equipped with hand-held electronic thermometers. If sporting events or other activities are authorized during the pandemic, the units may also be used to check temperatures of community members attending the event.
On behalf of the board, Board President Hayes presented Tieman with a plaque in recognition of Tieman’s service to the district. The plaque read: “In recognition and appreciation for 19 years of dedicated service as a Friend, Principal and Superintendent at Gillespie CUSD #7.”
“Everyone knows that tonight is Mr. Tieman’s last meeting,” Hayes noted. “Mr. Tieman, it’s been a helluva a ride. We hate to see you go.”
A sometimes emotional Tieman fought back tears as he briefly addressed the board and his successor Owsley.
“It’s been the job of a lifetime,” he said, adding that he is proud of the district’s accomplishments during his tenure. “Thirty-five years ago when I started teaching, if you told me I would be a principal, I would have laughed.”
He thanked the former Superintendent Paul Skeans and the board for “taking a chance on me” by hiring him first as an assistant superintendent and later as superintendent upon Skeans’ retirement.
“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “Mr. Skeans told me long ago that the key to this job is to hire good people and let them do their jobs.”
Directing comments to Owsley, Tieman said he is fortunate to come into the superintendent’s position with a “stable board of education” to work with. Most of the members, he said, have served multiple terms and approach their responsibilities with professionalism.
“To have a professional board of education is critical,” he said. “You have principals on board who have shown their commitment above and beyond 7:30 to 4.”
He called the district’s department heads the “unsung heroes” of the district who manage transportation, building and grounds, information technology and other areas efficiently and professionally. “They are problem solvers,” he said. “They literally bring me zero problems.”
He praised the secretarial staff as “the glue that holds the district together.”
The teaching staff, he said, does a job not everyone can do. “It is an art and a science,” he said. “The influence a teacher can have in five days or five minutes on a student, especially one who lives in poverty, is monumental. It is powerful.”
With his voice choking with emotion, Tieman said he was grateful for people who supported him and provided him with an opportunity to work and live in the school district, and raise his family there.
“People have been so kind to me and my family,” he said.
Tieman began his career in education 35 years ago as a teacher in the Girard School District. He was hired as a middle school principal in Gillespie 18 years ago and was later hired as an assistant superintendent. He has served as the district’s superintendent for the past seven years.
In his retirement, he and his family plan to move to Sarasota, Fla.
VOCATIONAL BUILDING UPDATE
Owsley reported on the status of a proposed project to enlarge the size of the vocational education building. Owsley said a pre-bid meeting for contractors is set for July 9 and the board should be able to take action on one of three actions by mid-July.
“They’re still looking to start construction the first week in August,” he said, “with a completion date hopefully by the end of December.”
Following an executive session of about 90 minutes, the board voted unanimously to hire Jennifer Brown as a summer school teacher for both drivers’ education and consumer education. Owsley said 25 students were enrolled for the drivers’ education class and 28 students enrolled for consumer education. Enrollment for summer school English and mathematics was not sufficient to offer those classes this year. The board also voted unanimously to appoint Brown as the high school cheerleading coach for the 2020-21 school year.
Board members voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Casey Niehaus as an elementary teacher. Niehaus was a computer instructor at the elementary level. The board also accepted the resignation of Joe Kelly as an assistant high school softball coach, and the resignation of Stephanie Bray as the high school yearbook sponsor.
By unanimous vote, the board approved a maternity leave from the time of delivery through Christmas break for Christina Blevins, a sixth-grade science and encore teacher.
In other action, the board:
- Voted to renew the district’s contract with Blue Cross-Blue Shield to provide employee health care coverage for the year. Because of recent claims history, Tieman said the premium is increasing by about 12.7 percent but that coverage will remain the same. While there were other bidders, Tieman said those companies offered coverage that was inferior to the current plan. “The plan stays the same, the coverage stays the same,” he said. “It’s just going to cost more.”
- Voted to adopt a teacher/staff handbook.
- Voted to again contract with Kohl’s Wholesale, Quincy, to provide commodities such as bread, buns and other supplies for the coming school year.
- Approved a prevailing wage statement—a formality required by law to document the district will only use contractors who pay their employees the prevailing wage as set by the Department of Labor.
- Adopted a IMRF resolution—another formality authorizing the district to deduct contributions to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. “It’s something we already do,” Tieman told the board. “This just makes it official.”
The board’s next meeting will be a special meeting set for 6 p.m., Monday, July 6.