Meeting via the Zoom video-conferencing system amid continuing COVID-19 pandemic precautions, members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education on Monday night authorized an ambitious $288,000 initiative to provide laptop computers for each district student by the time the 2020-21 school year opens.
In other action, the board voted unanimously to hire Gillespie resident Tara Copper as Gillespie Middle School principal, effective June 15. The action fills the last of the administrative vacancies precipitated by the unexpected retirement of Supt. Joe Tieman.
On a motion by Bill Carter, seconded by Weye Schmidt, the board voted to start acquiring computers for the coming school year for all students in the fourth through 12th grades.
The measure to accelerate the district’s 1:1 initiative to provide computers for students is prompted in part by this spring’s COVID-19 emergency, which forced the district to provide remote learning resources for district students. The initiative previously outlined plans to provide computers for one class level each year until reaching the goal of providing computers for all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district provided computers for fourth and fifth-grade students at BenGil Elementary School, and plans were in place to provide computers for sixth-grade students in the coming year.
“With COVID-19, in my opinion, it became apparent” that the district needed to consider providing computer access for all students before the start of the 2020-21 school year, according to Tieman. Given the conventional wisdom that COVID-19 may continue to be an issue through the summer, Tieman said the district may be required to offer remote learning at least at the start of the coming school year.
Facing that potential scenario, Tieman said the “administrative team has been looking at ways to put a computer in every students’ hands from K through 12.” Tieman acknowledged the price tag for the program may seem daunting, “but I don’t think we ‘can’t’ afford to do this,” adding that with or without the pandemic the future of education is going to increasingly rely upon providing computer access for students.
“It may be this is the only positive to come out of this pandemic,” Tieman said. “It’s forcing our hand. This is where the district must go. We have to be creative and think outside the box to fund it. This is their (students’) world.”
High School Principal Shane Owsley, poised to step into the superintendent’s office next month, said he has been working closely with Technology Coordinator Mark Carpani to create a plan for providing computers for all students district-wide. He said Carpani put together a plan to acquire 600 computers at a total cost of $288,000. Leased over a period of four years, the district would pay $6,800 per month for the machines. In addition, Carpani recommended buying insurance for the machines at a cost of $145 per machine for the term of the lease—a total of $87,000.
Carpani said the computers will be configured to reduce the potential for students using them to access online materials not associated with classwork. At the end of the four-year lease, the computers will become the property of the district and may be offered to the students who have them in their possession at the time the lease term concludes.
Owsley said he has been in contact with neighboring districts to learn if they are charging student fees to help recoup some of the cost of the program. Staunton School District, he said, does not charge fees except in the event a student damages a computer requiring it to be repaired. Carlinville School District does charge a fee but Owsley said he has not been informed of the fee structure.
Earlier in the meeting, the board approved a schedule of student fees for the coming school year, which includes a $75 textbook rental fee. The new computers could be pre-loaded with class materials or be capable of receiving materials online—eliminating the need for textbooks. In that event, Jenni Alepra asked, would the Student Handbook and fee schedule need to be amended.
Tieman said the handbook is secondary to school policy. If the board eliminated book rental fees or chooses to assess a rental fee for computers, that contingency could be addressed with a handbook insert provided to students after the start of the school year. At the same time, he cautioned against assessing fees for computers on students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. State law requires school districts to waive all fees that are “waivable” for free and reduced-price lunch students.
“I suspect that may be the reason Staunton isn’t charging a fee,” Tieman speculated.
Carter noted that nearly 70 percent of the district’s student body is identified as coming from low-income families qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
Owsley said he and Carpani are still in discussions regarding ways to better manage the cost of the program. For example, he said, the school district will be eligible for CARES Act funding to mitigate against expenses and income losses associated with the pandemic. While yet to be determined, that money may be limited to Title I schools. At the moment, Ben-Gil Elementary is the only Title I school in the district.
Under those circumstances, Owsley said the district may be able to reduce costs by transferring computers purchased last year for fourth and fifth grades to Gillespie Middle School and using CARES money to replace computers at the elementary level. Such a maneuver, he said, would reduce the total number of computers the district would need to buy.
With the board’s action Monday night, Owsley and Carpani said they would start ordering computers on Tuesday. However, Carpani pointed out, there could be delays in actually receiving the machines because other districts facing the same circumstances are likely to be rushing to acquire computers as well. “We’re not the only district scrambling to get computers,” Carpani said.
Among the issues discussed but not resolved Monday night is how the district will address the disparity between students whose families have reliable internet access and those who do not.
MIDDLE SCHOOL PRINCIPAL
Following an hour-long executive session to discuss personnel issues, the board voted unanimously to hire Tara Cooper as Gillespie Middle School principal, effective June 15. Cooper will replace current GMS Principal Jill Rosentreter, who will be elevated to Gillespie High School Principal in June.
Rosentreter was hired last month to replace Owsley, who will assume duties as district superintendent as Tieman’s retirement becomes effective.
A resident of Gillespie, Cooper currently is employed as an assistant principal at the North Mac Middle School in Girard/Virden. After earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Blackburn College in Carlinville, Cooper began her teaching career by teaching middle school social studies and English/language arts in Community Unit School District 7. She earned her master’s degree in Education Administration from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.
The board also voted unanimously to hire Jacob West as a first-year, non-tenured physical education teacher for the 2020-21 school year.
The board also voted to post two vacancies for two elementary teaching positions.
In separate actions, the board agreed to post vacant positions for summer school teaching positions in high school mathematics, English, consumer education and driver education. Regarding the mathematics position, specifically, Tieman noted that if the class doesn’t attract sufficient enrollment, the board could opt to simply not fill the position.
VOCATIONAL BUILDING PROJECT
Participating remotely, David Leggans, an architect with Graham & Hyde Architects, Springfield, briefly discussed the status of a proposed project to replace the roof on the existing high school vocational education facility and possibly expanding the size of the building.
Tieman told the board that Leggans is the lead architect on the project and is expected to present bids for the board to act on at its June meeting. Tieman also said that Leggans had advised him that Tieman’s original speculation that the project could be completed before the start of the school year was overly optimistic.
Leggans told the board that contractors could replace the old roof on the existing building during the summer. But if the board opts to expand the size of the building, the work will extend into the early fall after the school year starts.
Metal building suppliers, he said, require a 12-week lead time to supply buildings, he said. “With or without a pandemic, that’s just the way things are,” he said.
Leggans said he will present three bids for the board to consider: 1.) replacing the roof on the existing building; 2.) replacing the roof and adding a 30-foot addition; and 3) replacing the roof and adding a 48-foot addition. He said under state rules, 48 feet would be the maximum size the board could consider. A larger addition, he said, would trigger a mandate for the district to add a storm shelter to the project.
In the event the board chooses to add 48 feet, the bid will include pricing for removing the existing greenhouse and replacing it with a new greenhouse in an alternate location.
If the board opts to expand the size of the building, Leggans said contractors would have the old roof replaced and would have concrete work done and waiting for the metal building before the start of the school year. “Those buildings go up pretty fast once they arrive,” he said. The 30-foot addition could be accomplished, he said, with no disruption to instruction. There would be some minor disruption with the 48-foot expansion, he said, primarily because of the need to remove and replace the greenhouse.
It’s anticipated that interior finish work will be done by school personnel and vocational education students.
Tieman said the district can pay for the project with a $400,000 vocational education state grant awarded to the district, coupled with a $50,000 Life Safety matching grant. The Life Safety grant would be matched with $50,000 in school district funds.
“Essentially for $50,000, we’re getting another $450,000,” Tieman said.
The scope of the final project will be determined by the size of the bids the district receives. Leggans declined to speculate on how favorable bids might be, but said some contractors may be “hungry” for a project and submit bids that would enable the district to add the larger addition to the building.
Carter asked about the loss of parking spaces during the district’s high school football season. Leggans said the project is unlikely to have a significant impact on parking. “You might lose 15 or 20 spaces,” he said.
In other action, in addition to approving student fees, the board voted to approve a Student Handbook for the coming school year. That handbook will include a provision changing the name of Lady Miners athletic teams to simply “Miners.”
“There was some concern that it was sexist,” Owsley told the board. “We’re all Miners.”
Under administrative reports, all three building principals reported that the last student work for the school year was dropped off Monday at their respective buildings, and was sorted for grading. Final report cards should be available by the first week in June.
Rosentreter reported that paraprofessional/teacher aide Nicole Katich was selected for an Illinois Golden Apple Award, receiving a $30,000 grant to pursue a teaching certificate through Blackburn College. Katich will be assigned to Gillespie Middle School where she currently works as a paraprofessional.
Both Owsley and Rosentreter reported on the development of online virtual award ceremonies they have either prepared or are preparing for viewing. Owsley reported on a graduation ceremony held at the Gillespie High School gymnasium on Sunday while observing social distancing protocols. He said Macoupin County Public Health Department officials were on-site to ensure the program was conducted safely, along with representatives of the Gillespie Fire Department and Police Department. An online virtual graduation ceremony also will be offered.
Schmidt and Board President Mark Hayes praised the administrators’ efforts to provide recognition for student award winners and graduates under trying circumstances.
“I think you did a great job,” Schmidt said. “If you walked into the gym, it was set up and looked just like it would for any other graduation ceremony.”
“This is a small community,” Hayes noted, “but when times get hard, we come together.”
Hayes said he is hopeful COVID-19 restrictions will be relaxed enough by the time of the board’s June meeting that the board itself can meet face-to-face—possibly in the school cafeteria or library to allow for social distancing—while allowing access to the public via remote access.