Highland News Leader

Highland school board spars over which programs should be expanded after years of cuts

Highland schools have fewer kids this year than last year, but still slightly more than two years ago. Schools use the enrollment on the sixth day of classes to determine their official numbers for the year, which are used for a number of purposes including state funding. Highland’s enrollment for 2019-20 is 2,869 students, which is 12 fewer than last year overall.
Highland schools have fewer kids this year than last year, but still slightly more than two years ago. Schools use the enrollment on the sixth day of classes to determine their official numbers for the year, which are used for a number of purposes including state funding. Highland’s enrollment for 2019-20 is 2,869 students, which is 12 fewer than last year overall. News-Leader file photo

With state funding returning to Illinois school districts, Highland school board officials are debating what programs should come back first and which programs should return at all.

Students at Highland High School will see the return of building trade courses and the addition of more family and consumer sciences courses with the hiring of three new teachers after the board approved the positions last week.

However, arriving at that decision was no easy task, with several board members sparring over which of the three programs considered should be expanded.

“When we made those cuts we knew it was going to be equally as difficult when we got on the other side of the hump,” said School District Superintendent Mike Sutton.

Deciding what’s best to bring back is a delicate process, Sutton said, as what students want and adults want can differ. For instance, he said, vocational programs have been heavily pushed by the board but district staff reports a more urgent need for expansion of the Family and Consumer Science (FACS) program.

With juniors already meeting with counselors to decide their 2019-2020 schedules, the board needed to act immediately in order to begin hiring personnel and planning courses around them for whichever programs the board chose.

Programs resurrected, expanded

While Sutton recommended the reinstatement and hiring of two teachers for the building trades program, he had different recommendations when it came to the third position. He recommended an additional art teacher to be hired to restore classes as the high school and give students at the elementary time more time in their art classes.

However, the motion was shot down despite the protests of board member Robert Miller, who argued that for years students who have been interested in art weren’t able to get into art colleges because of the lack of classes at Highland High.

The reinstating of the building trades program didn’t receive the board’s full support either but was approved. Two board members, Rene’ Friedel and Zach Lewis voted no on reinstating the program and hiring the two new professors.

Building trades provide students an opportunity to get experience in construction before graduation. Students spend school time learning about erecting buildings, installation and maintenance of residential buildings and related fixtures and develop technical skills related to masonry, carpentry and finish work.

The two board members contended the board should only reinstate programs that have been well thought out and have a concrete plan and that without a defined plan for the program and no personnel selected the program could struggle.

Those issues had been heavily discussed, Sutton said, but no definite solution or answer was reached by his staff.

“Do we have the program dictate the personnel or have the program dictate the personnel?” Sutton said. “I think we kind of quasi-don’t know which way to go because you can’t let the program dictate the program because there aren’t a lot of people out there.”

Friedel said she felt the board needed to prepare a more concrete plan going forward, so the board has a timeline and the school district community has an idea of when things might be returning to the school.

She argued that the discussion on reinstating the program was “all over the place,” and asserted that with another year the program could be planned out and more sustainable. In its current form, she contested, the board wasn’t sure what the students would even build.

Sutton suggested at a minimum the students could fix up and build structures on the high school campus. He said there were many other options as well that would depend on who the teacher of the classes ended up being. There also is an opportunity to rehab homes in Highland owned by the city, he said.

Lewis agreed with Friedel. He said another year of planning would do the program well.

“I just think we could get a better sustainable program if we take the extra year and develop it,” Lewis said.

Miller said the program didn’t need a concrete plan to be approved and that the plan would come when the teachers were hired.

He said waiting a year wasn’t in the best interest of the community or the district’s students. The board needed to act now, he said, due to construction companies in the area seeking workers and not being able to find local workers.

He said not being able to train Highland high schoolers to take those jobs is “embarrassing.”

“The fact that all the construction companies we have around here and the fact that we can’t train anyone to provide local labor for our local economy is embarrassing,” Miller said.

He said there doesn’t need to be a concrete plan for a program like building trades to approve it, because no matter the personnel or program the students will end up building something. As long as the skills are being taught, he said, the program will be a success.

“As long you’re teaching them the skills, I don’t care if you’re building a concession stand, a garage, a storage garage or you’re rehabbing something,” Miller said.

In the end, the board voted to approve two building trade positions at the high school, with Lewis and Friedel voting no. As for the FACS program, all board members but Miller voted to approve the additional position.

Sutton recommended at the beginning of the discussion that the board reinstate the building trade program and hire a new art teacher, instead of a FACS teacher.

However, currently, there is only one FACS teacher at the high school, Dawn Jones, who said more than 250 students are interested in the courses but due to a lack of instructors, some students have had to go without.

Jones noted that community daycares and care facilities currently need workers. She said if the high school could teach more students FACS skills, the school would be greatly aiding a community need.

Needs around the district

These discussions are just the first of many for the school district. As the board looks forward, Sutton said, they’ll have to be thinking about how best to rebuild the school district. He said there are needs in almost area of the high school, from programs to facilities.

“There still are a lot of needs across the district. Curriculum needs, vocational needs, fine art needs,” Sutton said. “But I think it’s my duty to filter through all these needs and find something that our focus should be on.”

Sutton said it may be in the district’s best interest to build a new, instead of reconstructing what the district had program-wise before cuts were needed.

“I don’t know if we want all that information to cloud our judgment as we build,” Sutton said. “What we want to bring back might look totally different from what we cut.”

Friedel said a map of what might come back and when would be helpful to everyone in the district.

That way, she said, stakeholders would know what might be reinstated and when the board plans to do so if funding continues to return.

“Maybe as a board, we decide with the administration and the staff to prioritize some of the reimplementation of these programs that need to come back, rather than us being at the heart saying ‘we’re going to do this we’re going to do that,’ “ Friedel said. “I think its a vision that will be beneficial for programs so they can see ‘we’re on that list, we’re up in a few years.’ “

Sutton and the board agreed to discuss the art program further at a future board meeting.

“They need to be addressed sometime soon,” Sutton said.

Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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