As state aid returns to schools throughout Illinois, Highland District 5 is turning to the community to determine how it should go forward after years of financial struggles.
New funding is giving Highland Community School District more breathing room when it comes to looking into the next several years. Superintendent Mike Sutton said that financial freedom will give the district room to grow, and with that new room, the district needs to rethink its strategic plan.
“For years we struggled financially and we were just trying to make ends meet,” Sutton said. “We made a lot of decisions just based on our means. Now that things are starting to look up, its time to start putting some thought into the direction we want our district to go in.”
In 2018, the school district saw $146,478 in funds added to its more than $7.1 million of state funding. That’s the second year in a row, Sutton said, that the state has added funds to Highland’s coffers.
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That’s on top of the fourth straight year of growth in the district’s tax base, growing enrollment for the first time in several years and a 2 percent increase in property tax revenue, which will bring in an estimated $86,087 this year.
Tough decisions the district made in the past also helped the district in the long run. That included reducing the number of staff, teachers and vocational instructors at Highland High School. At the middle school, the number of teachers also was reduced and the grade levels concept was altered to save money. At each elementary school, higher class sizes were prevalent during lean budgetary years.
“What has probably helped most is through the lean years we made really tough decisions to reducing staff and reducing some programs in order to live within the means we had this time,” Sutton said. “So I think a combination of things getting better and the hard work the board and the district have done to keep it going over the past couple of years.”
With room to breathe, Sutton said it made sense to start rethinking how the district is planning for its next few years. In July, Highland began planning to redo its strategic plan. He said it’s an opportunity for the district to tackle decision making with the input of the community and its stakeholders.
“We still have lots of programs that have sustained cuts over the year,” Sutton said. “As we put those pieces back together it’s valuable to have the input of both the folks who work in the school district and the stakeholders that live in the community.”
That started with bringing together 27 members of the public and school district’s community to identify six different strategies the board and administration would use as a guide going forward.
The group identified the following strategies:
Attract and retain highly qualified faculty and staff to meet the needs of the district programs and services.
Provide facilities consistent with the district’s mission and the needs and growth of our programs and communities.
Continue to demonstrate fiscal responsibility that meets the changing needs of the district.
Provide a curriculum that prepares students and staff for their future academic and career path goals, and recognizes their social, emotional, and physical needs.
Promote the community and school district as a destination for all families through effective communication, school pride, and community involvement.
Provide technology that enhances the operational and educational environment for staff and students.
The next step will see the district’s board members will join committees for each of the six strategies to expand on the core idea. Sutton said these strategies will help guide decisions the district makes going forward.
About 15 to 20 people from the community and school district will make up the committees, each meeting separately to further flesh out the strategies. Sutton said they will define objectives for the district inside their strategy and then create action steps to guide the district toward that goal.
After that a final strategic plan will be created, combining all the different strategies, objectives and action steps under the school’s, the board approved, new mission statement “Igniting bright futures to build a better community.”
Sutton said it’s important the district takes advantage of the freedom the district has right now. He said the district needs to adapt while it’s growing to better prepare itself for the future.
“When you’re in those difficult times and you’re making cuts every year, it’s difficult to have strategic planning where you’re trying to get people to think outside the box about what needs we have because its more of a concern to try to keep what you got,” Sutton said. “Now’s the perfect time to move into strategic planning for us because of that.”
The committees are set to start meeting in the next month. Sutton said he hopes to have the group stage of strategic planning finished by December and a new, completed strategic plan ready for the school board soon after.