Orion Gazette - Orion, IL
  • School forums: Area residents pack public meetings

  • ORION—Given a chance to speak out on the school budget crisis, some Orion area residents kept administrators and school board members talking until 11 p.m. on Tuesday, April 6.

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  • Given a chance to speak out on the school budget crisis, some Orion area residents kept administrators and school board members talking until 11 p.m. on Tuesday, April 6.
    That night Orion High School hosted the first of three forums for people interested in learning about the situation and how the district plans to deal with it.
    At least 100 people crowded into the commons. Some stood along the back wall.
    About that many attended the school forum at C.R. Hanna Elementary School the next night.
    Around 50 were at the forum at Orion Middle School on Thursday, April 8. Superintendent David Deets said he and other administrators met earlier in the day to review comments from the earlier meetings. They discussed what they could pass on to the school board at its May meeting.
    “None of the recommendations in March were wrong,” Deets said. “But comments from the public are shaping our final decisions.”
    The forums gave administrators and board members a chance to explain the steps they have taken so far to cut $700,000 to $1 million from the district’s $11 million budget.
    Board members are listening intently because they want the final budget to reflect what the community will support, Deets said.
    If the community wants music and not sports, the board can listen to its wishes, the superintendent said.
    State law required the board to vote in March on issuing reduction-in-force notices to teachers who might be dismissed or have their hours reduced.
    Some people attended all three sessions.
    Parents whose children are in school and parents whose children have graduated were at the forums.
    So were faculty, staff and coaches from all three schools, as well as retirees and former employees.
    Principals Ron Harris of OHS and R.C. Lowe of C.R. Hanna attended all three sessions.
    School board members Julie Abbott, Larry Atkinson, Doug Nelson, Kim Nightingale and Jon Zahm were at all three forums. Nelson was late to the C.R. Hanna meeting.
    Another board member, Dwayne Anderson, attended the OHS?session. He was out of town on business the next two nights.
    Board member Paul Bolhous went to the OHS and C.R. Hanna forums.
    Some people felt the public should have been given a chance to speak out before the March meeting.
    Board members and administrators said that was not true.
    OHS principal Ron Harris said that in his four years as principal, he has learned a lot about the community’s concerns by holding staff meetings, talking to students at lunch and speaking to parents at games.
    “This is how I gather information to make recommendations,” Harris said.
    Kim Nightingale, a board member since 2006, said she received numerous phone calls, e-mail messages, letters and comments before she voted on staff reductions in March.
    Page 2 of 3 - The board did not rubber-stamp the administration’s recommendations, Nightingale said. There were a lot of “no” votes and even some “presents.”
    Board members made up their own minds, she said.
    Abbott, a board member since 2007, said the public is welcome to come to board meetings.
    Deets said he was a little perplexed by comments about the lack of public input.
    He pointed out the public elected board members to make decisions.
    The school board has the authority and the responsibility to decide how the administration’s recommendations fit the goals of the schools and community, the superintendent said.
    Board members had confidential information not available to the public, Deets said.
    At the C.R. Hanna forum, board president Nelson said people were coming up with good ideas, but he was reluctant to have another big public meeting.
    “It’s up to the elected board to take the information and suggestions, and do the best they can for the district,” Nelson said.
    The decisions made in March were not easy, said Pam Anderson. Her husband, Dwayne, loses sleep over the issues he faces as a taxpayer, parent and board member.
    OMS principal Gary Heard began his presentation on Thursday by saying a lot of open, honest and blunt discussion was involved in the process that led to the reduction-in-force notices.
    “I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and I’m pretty blunt,” Heard said. “It was hard on me to make some of these decisions.”
    Deets said this is a tough time for superintendents across the state.
    He knows he cannot please everyone, and the board did not hire him to make popular decisions.
    He does not have the luxury of looking at what is best for one child, or one activity, or one school, Deets said.
    The superintendent said his bottom line is to do what he believes is best for all the students, today, tomorrow and five years from now.
    “It’s understandable there’s a lot of passion and emotion in these decisions,” Deets said.
    People attending the forums are strong advocates of one program or another, the superintendent said.
    But the district also has to consider the wishes of those who did not attend the forums, Deets said.
    Ten percent of parents might support higher fees, but 90 percent might feel ambushed by the additional cost of registering their children, the superintendent said.
    Same for higher property taxes, Deets said. But if the district asked voters to approve a 10 cent hike, they would turn it down.
    People spend 20 to 25 percent of their lives concerned about the education their children receive, the superintendent said. They spend the rest of their lives worried about their property tax bills.
    Page 3 of 3 - “It’s hard for any of us as parents to be objective because we focus on what’s best for our children,” Deets said.
    He has to focus on 1,000 students, the superintendent said.
    “As passionate as we all are about saving jobs and programs, that’s not a reality,” Deets said.
    Area residents can leave comments on the district’s website, http://orionschools.us. Click on the “District” tab and scroll down to the “Budget Reduction Plan” comment section.
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