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What would a combined Atwood-Hammond/Arthur-Lovington school district like? That is what a community Committee of 10 has been researching, and preliminary results were presented at a public meeting in Arthur on Feb. 13.
If voters approve the annexation of A-H into A-L on April 9, one of the first things that could happen is to establish a unique identity through a fresh mascot. The district would keep the Arthur CUSD #305 overall name.
The Committee of 10's extra-curricular committee is recommending the grade and junior high schools in the individual towns keep their mascots, but that the combined high school in Arthur be given a new one – one distinct from any of the high school ones that are currently being used.
“We recommend a process that involves a student committee consisting of one boy and one girl in grades eight through 11 from each district in the 2013-14 school year. They are to select four (finalists),” said extracurricular committee member Tyson Wingler. Eighth- through 11th-grade students would then vote on a new mascot, hopefully by January of next year.
School colors would be red, black and gold if the committee recommendations are followed.
Arthur-Lovington Superintendent Travis Wilson did not mince words as to the main reason bigger districts may become more common in Illinois: An increase in unfunded mandates coupled with declining revenue from the State of Illinois. That combination could eventually prove lethal to some schools, and damaging to many taxpayers.
“I don’t think the property tax payers of the State of Illinois understand the anvil that is over their heads with a straying rope,” said Wilson. “We shouldn’t have to go through this (annexation) twice in a lifetime, but we do it for the kids.”
Committee members also felt that: K-8 facilities would remain open in Atwood, Arthur and Lovington; did not foresee any significant transportation issues; that the cooperative agreement with Arcola would not be needed if annexation goes through; and have hopes the 12-acre Atwood-Hammond High School property could be sold, possibly after demolishing the school building but keeping the ag building.
The current Arthur High School is adequate to house the projected 105 Atwood-Hammond students, which would bring the combined enrollment to about 370.
“The building has the capacity for about 390 students without any change,” said Building and Grounds Committee member Greg Irwin. He added that five spaces currently not used for classrooms could eventually expand that to 540 students if needed in the future.
High school course offerings could increase if the school districts combine forces, according to curriculum committee members Renee Brown and Linda Casteel. A spreadsheet showed the possibility of four more agriculture classes, more art offerings, and the possibility of adding marching band to the music schedule. More staff and students also open up the possibility of more electives, such as Shakespeare and other literature classes.
Casteel said a work training program being implemented at Arthur-Lovington this fall could also be of benefit to Atwood-Hammond students.
“Students will partner with an area business to work and earn credit. Seniors would have a class period of instruction, followed by one class period of on-the-job training,” she said. “It will also be designed to grow with the need.”
Atwood-Hammond High School student Travis Dean has been a student representative in the process. Even though he is heavily involved with sports, he encouraged the 40 or so in attendance to think more about the curriculum upgrades when casting their votes.
“This is what matters. This (classes) is what is going to give your kid help in life. This is what is going to make your school stand out. Please let this be what you vote on, and not just stubborn pride,” said Dean.
Classmate Chantell Bonham said a student poll of Atwood-Hammond students showed they were worried about added travel time, parking places, and going to a school where they did not have relationships with instructors, but that they liked the idea of more options and new resources.
“They’re kind of scared, but looking forward to a new identity,” she said.
Arthur-Lovington Superintendent Travis Wilson explained why Arthur was willing to take on another annexation on the heels of the one that started this past fall with Lovington. He bluntly said that district tax rates will need to rise eventually, but that by increasing the tax base they would be able to stave off severe increases and also hold off the massive budget cuts that many area school districts are considering.
“My hop is if we get out six years, you have a better chance for the state to turn the corner,” said Wilson.
The new district would have an assessed valuation of about $170 million, compared to Arthur-Lovington’s $124 million. That translates into more real estate tax dollars in a time when state funding continues to drop.
Atwood-Hammond Superintendent Kenny Schwengel said the issue was put on the ballot due to declining enrollment and shrinking fund reserves. He said the district education fund will spend $400,000 more than it brings in this school year, leaving the district with just $600,000 left I that account. He said a tax increase of 95 cents per $100 of equalized assessed valuation would be needed “just to break even” if the district continued on its own.
Cutbacks would need to be severe to make up that amount if there is no tax increase, with Schwengel saying about a third of the district’s total staff of 35 would need to be laid off the make up the $400,000.
“Most likely the response to a failed referendum would be some cuts, coupled with working cash bonds to get us through,” he added.
Committee member Bob Doan also encouraged those present to vote for the school facilities tax, which is also on the ballot in Moultrie County. The one-percent sales tax would net the Arthur-Lovington district about $180,000 for building rehab and construction, and Atwood-Hammond about $100,000 per year. Champaign and Macon Counties already have the county facilities sales tax.
The Committee of 10 will hold its last public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25 at Atwood-Hammond Grade School. Recommendations and information will then be compiled and delivered to voters. Both districts need to approve the annexation for it to go into effect in the fall of 2014.