With half of its members participating remotely via the Zoom remote conferencing platform, the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education on Monday night set a public hearing for the 2020 property tax levy, reviewed this year’s “school report cards” and voted unanimously to return to remote learning, effective Nov. 30, due to an increasing number of COVID-19 infections in the school district and throughout Macoupin County.
The measure to return to remote learning was approved on a motion by Jenni Alepra, seconded by Board President Mark Hayes. Supt. Shane Owsley said remote learning will continue through at least Jan. 11 when students typically would be returning from winter break. The district started the year on Aug. 17 with remote learning only, but the board later agreed to move to a hybrid program—allowing parents to opt for either in-person or remote learning—starting Oct. 4. The move comes only seven weeks after the board agreed to offer a hybrid learning program starting on Oct. 5. Late last month, building administrators reported to the board that about 30 percent of the district’s total enrollment opted for in-classroom learning.
Reading from a prepared letter to be sent to parents, Owsley said the measure is necessary in view of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
“The decision to take this step back was not made lightly,” Owsley read. “We have done our best to keep instruction on an in-person basis as long as we possibly could. We know how difficult remote learning is for students, parents, and teachers. We also understand that many families and teachers have been resistant to shifting away from in-person, and we fully understand that sentiment. However, we feel strongly that at this time the right thing to do is to shift into Full Remote instruction.”
Additionally, he said eliminating in-person learning through Jan. 11 will get the district through the holidays when some local families are likely to be traveling, attending holiday gatherings, and otherwise increasing their chances of exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
“We understand this and we are not making any judgments on those decisions,” Owsley read from his letter. “However, this does pose a significantly increased risk to students and staff when we are conducting in-person instruction. That, along with the unrelenting increase of COVID cases, leaves us with no choice but to make this move at this time. By going Full Remote for the next four academic weeks we will be able to get through and well past the Holiday Season. This will give us a chance to reassess how things are in our communities and our area the first week of January and determine if a shift back to our Hybrid Learning Plan is in order at that time.”
Earlier in the meeting, anticipating the board’s vote to suspend in-classroom learning, Michelle Smith, President of the local teachers union, read a statement thanking the board for its action and emphasizing that a return to remote learning would be in the “best interest of the health and safety of CUSD 7 students, teachers and staff.”
On Owsley’s recommendation, the board approved a resolution setting a Truth in Taxation hearing for 6 p.m., Monday, Dec. 21, in the Gillespie Middle School cafeteria on a proposed $3.4 million property tax levy. Members of the public will be able to comment on the levy proposal and ask questions during the hearing. In the meantime, the proposed levy can be reviewed at the district administrative office or on the district’s website.
Property tax levies for all taxing bodies in Macoupin County are subject to the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL), which was approved by Macoupin County voters in 1995. PTELL limits increases in the levy to no more than five percent or the Consumer Price Index (whichever is less) of the previous year’s tax extension. Owsley noted that the levy refers to the amount requested by the district for the coming year, while the extension is the actual amount of taxes collected the previous year. The levy typically exceeds the extension, often by a substantial amount.
The proposed levy amounts to more than 105 percent of last year’s extension, according to Owsley’s presentation to the board. Whenever a proposed levy exceeds the previous year’s extension by more than five percent, a formal Truth in Taxation hearing is required.
Owsley told the board the district is somewhat hamstrung in setting a levy because the levy must be approved in December even though the district’s total Equalized Assessed Evaluation won’t be known until later in 2021. If the levy fails to capture increases in the EAV, Owsley noted, subsequent levies will be limited by the newly established extension baseline.
The proposed levy presented to the board Monday night called for a levy of $1,490,071 for Education, compared with last year’s extension of $1,316,236; $385,160 for Operations and Maintenance, compared with last year’s extension of $340,227; $154,567 for Transportation, compared with last year’s extension of $136,535; $36,083 for Working Cash, compared with last year’s extension of $31,874; $103,828 for Illinois Municipal Retirement Funds, compared with last year’s extension of $91,715; $93,924 for Social Security, compared with last year’s extension of $82,967; $206,841 for Tort Liability, compared with last year’s extension of $182,711; $28,871 for Special Education, compared with last year’s extension of $25,502; and $919,259 for Bond and Interest, compared with last year’s extension of $921,206.
The proposed levy totals $3,418,604, compared with last year’s total extension of $3,128,969.
“What we receive is always less than what we request,” Owsley told the board. “We are forced to ‘over-levy’, knowing that if we don’t levy for more than we expect to receive, that money is gone forever. The best explanation of it I’ve heard is that it’s like a Christmas list. You know you put more things on your list than you’re likely to receive because you can’t go back later and add things later.”
The actual tax rate (the amount that needs to be applied to the EAV to generate the levy) is set by the County Clerk after the board submits the levy request to the Clerk after December 21. The Clerk’s calculations will be governed by PTELL, meaning that he will determine a rate that complies with PTELL based upon the new EAV once that figure is known.
Because of the PTELL factor, Owsley said the district runs no risk of “over-taxing” its constituents even though the levy request will substantially exceed PTELL limits. For example, last year’s extension of $2,207,762 fell short of the district’s $2,350,8239 levy request by $143,077.
Since 2014, Owsley reported, the district’s total EAV has fallen by as much as 3.1 percent and increased by as much as 3.9 percent. The average increase over the last seven years has been 1.2 percent. Last year’s EAV of $74,961,151 represented a 3.3 percent increase from the previous year. For the 2020 levy proposal, the administration estimated a five percent increase, which would bring the EAV to about $80 million.
The other determining factor affecting the levy is the CPI, which typically is less than five percent. For the 2020 levy, the CPI is estimated at 2.3 percent—meaning the levy would be limited to 2.3 percent of the previous year’s extension.
Given the multiple factors affecting the levy and the extension, Owsley estimated the proposed levy of $3,418,605 will generate an extension of about $3,200,936.
SCHOOL REPORT CARDS
Building administrators briefly discussed “School Report Cards” recently released by the Illinois State Board of Education. Because Illinois schools converted to remote learning in March through the end of the school year, CUSD 7 students did not take state assessment tests which are normally administered in the spring. As a result, the new report cards have no updated data regarding academic performance.
The cards do, however, reflect data in connection with enrollment, attendance, absenteeism and truancy.
Because of the lack of testing, all three schools retain the academic classification they were given last year. Both the elementary school and high school are rated as “commendable,” meaning there were no underperforming student groups in the school, while the middle school is identified as a “targeted” school, meaning at least one group of students underperformed last year in comparison with state averages.
Newly hired GMS Principal Tara Cooper said the targeted designation is due to a student subgroup of Children with Disabilities that underperformed on assessment tests in 2019. “This is the third year for us to be in that category,” Cooper said. To address the “targeted” designation, Cooper said GMS is using School Improvement Funds to work with the American Institutes for Research to provide support to the GMS School Leadership Team and create a School Improvement Plan. Cooper said the School Improvement Plan includes provisions to improve academic performance school-wide and at the level of individual students.
High School Principal Jill Rosentreter said it is anticipated that students in all three buildings will take standardized assessment tests later this academic year. In the high school, the senior class has already taken the SAT and this year’s juniors expect to take the SAT in the spring.
Student attendance rates for 2020 are congruent with statewide averages. BenGil Elementary School with an attendance rate of 96 percent is showing a one percent improvement from the previous year. At 96 percent, GMS is showing a three percent improvement from the year before. Gillespie High School’s attendance rate of 95 percent is up three percent from the previous year’s average of 92 percent.
All three schools showed improvement in chronic absenteeism. For each of the three schools the rate fell from 18 percent in 2019 to 11 percent in 2020. Likewise the chronic truancy rate fell for all three schools. BenGil Elementary experience a decline in truancy from 13 percent to 10 percent. The middle school’s rate fell from 13 percent to 10 percent, as did the truancy rate for the high school.
The drop-out rate for the high school is four percent, which is the same as last year and identical to the previous year. “At our school, that’s about 15 students,” Rosentreter said.
Building principals attributed the reduction in absenteeism and truancy rates to the availability of a school resource officer to contact parents of students who are truant or absent without an excuse.
Rosentreter said the drop-out rate is a concern propelled by the number of low-income families in which students are required to contribute to the family financially or, sometimes, become self-supporting. The strain of having to work while trying to complete school prompts some students to drop out before graduation, she said.
“We are spending a lot of time helping students graduate with alternative ways for them to complete school,” she said.
While no statewide assessment tests were given last year, all three principals said testing done this year shows improvement in several academic areas.
“The high school scores are pretty optimistic,” Rosentreter noted. Rosentreter also thanked the board for its support and its willingness to provide resources for school improvement and to help teachers meet the challenges of teaching during the pandemic.
Board President Mark Hayes reported that construction on the vocational building has been delayed by about four weeks after it was discovered that a natural gas line had to be moved at an estimated cost of $4,330.
Both Owsley and Rosentreter publicly thanked the Ryan Fisher family for stepping in to pay off outstanding lunch balances for students whose parents were unable to afford the charges.
The board voted unanimously to extend a maternity leave for Speech Pathologist Kenna West for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
Board members also voted unanimously to hire Shelsie Timmermeier as a paraprofessional.
The board posted a vacancy for the position of Transportation Director. The new hire will replace Gary Niehaus, an 18-year veteran of the position, who announced his retirement, effective in July 2021, during a meeting of the board in April.