Education

Cahokia school district creates 4 new jobs. Residents have questions.

Curtis McCall Jr.
Curtis McCall Jr. News-Democrat file photo

Some residents are questioning whether Cahokia District 187 should be creating new jobs with the current lack of money from the state.

On Monday night, the school board voted to fill the following new jobs:

▪  Curtis McCall Jr. as dean of students.

▪  Kimberly Combs as director of employee recruitment and retention for human resources.

▪  Trevon Tompkin as night patrol watchman.

▪  Jarnia Reed as benefits coordinator.

The school board also hired four teachers on Monday.

Schools didn’t receive their first state aid payments this week because lawmakers are still negotiating a new funding formula, which will determine how the money is distributed to Illinois schools.

District 187 estimated that it has enough revenue from local property taxes and reserves to operate for 90 days without state aid money coming in. Superintendent Art Ryan said he’s optimistic the issue will be resolved before schools across the state run out of money and are forced to close their doors.

“I’m going to operate under the assumption that legislators are going to wake up and do something about it and fix it,” he said.

He argued that the current stalemate in Springfield, which he believes is temporary, shouldn’t stop district leaders from starting the school year with “things we think we need.”

Resident Mary Ann Spicer, 66, said if she still served on the school board, like she did from 1999 to 2012, she wouldn’t have supported hiring new employees while state funding remained uncertain unless those employees were teachers or paraprofessionals.

“Why hire these people knowing that this is the situation?” Spicer said.

Teachers’ union president Leslie Harder also expressed concerns during the Monday night school board meeting. Her comments to board members were videotaped and posted on YouTube.

“The union just believes that what money we do have at this time should be spent directly on services for our students and not creating new jobs at this time,” Harder said.

Spicer alleges that the reason the new employees were hired is because they are “politically connected” to McCall and his father, Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr.

Jessica McClelland, 52, who is a parent living in the district, said she thinks the positions aren’t necessary. “Not with the state of the state of Illinois,” she said.

McCall, who is also mayor of Cahokia, couldn’t be reached for comment. He has worked as a full-time teacher in the district since the 2013-14 school year, according to Ryan.

“He’s been our teacher for longer than he’s been mayor,” Ryan said.

McCall was elected in 2015.

Ryan said McCall will see a salary increase, but the district couldn’t immediately provide that amount.

The union just believes that what money we do have at this time should be spent directly on services for our students and not creating new jobs at this time.

Teachers’ union president Leslie Harder

The News-Democrat requested salaries and other information related to a number of employees recently hired by the school board. The district requested additional time to respond, citing meetings and workshops at the beginning of the school year as the reason it couldn’t gather the information in the five-day period required under the Freedom of Information Act.

Ryan said he approached McCall about serving as Cahokia High School’s first dean of students because he thinks McCall is a positive black male role model for the students he currently work with, and Ryan wanted to see him expand his reach.

About 89 percent of the students in Cahokia schools are black, but just 13 percent of the teachers are black, according to state data. That disparity is not just in Cahokia. Statewide, only 6 percent of teachers are black.

McCall, along with a paraprofessional, works with about eight to 10 students at a time on their schoolwork and behavioral issues through a “school within a school” program, according to Ryan. The superintendent compared the program to an alternative school because these students struggle in their regular classrooms. Most of them frequently get in trouble, and Ryan said they benefit from being in McCall’s classroom.

As dean of students, Ryan said McCall will be a presence throughout the high school, from supervising the cafeteria during lunch to overseeing assemblies.

St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty said an educator can become a dean of students if he or she has a teaching certificate, which McCall has. Additional education to receive an administrative endorsement isn’t required, but some deans have that, too, like Central Junior High Dean of Students Lacey Schmersahl in Belleville District 118.

Without the administrative endorsement, McCall won’t be able to suspend students or recommend expulsion, according to Sarfaty.

Ryan said another position was created for the upcoming school year to bring diversity to the Cahokia school staff.

He said the school board wants to make an effort to bring more black educators to Cahokia and keep them there, which is why the district created the director of employee recruitment and retention for human resources position.

Combs, the school board secretary, was hired to fill that job.

Ryan said the night patrol watchman position was created because the district has been losing money to vandalism, including broken windows and doors, as well as air conditioner units, which people have damaged by attempting to steal copper. Tompkin will be the district’s first watchman, driving around to schools at night to discourage the vandalism.

“Over the last few years, it’s gotten worse,” Ryan said of the incidents at school buildings.

Tompkin and Patricia Cross-Hicks, another employee hired Monday to fill an existing job, each have felony convictions. Cross-Hicks will work as a truancy officer, a position she previously held in District 187.

Schools aren’t prevented from hiring people because they have felonies, except for Class X felonies, which are violent crimes, according to Regional Superintendent Sarfaty. When individuals apply for jobs in schools, Sarfaty said the districts will perform background checks and search for their names in the Statewide Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Database or the Statewide Sex Offender Database.

Cross-Hicks pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing federal stimulus money when she was the secretary to the Centreville mayor. She was sentenced to probation, which ended in 2016, according to court records.

Tompkin, a former Cahokia trustee, was sentenced to probation in 2010 in connection with a vote fraud investigation in the village.

Cross-Hicks and Tompkin couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ryan said a charge related to voting, specifically, “doesn’t really affect students.” He also noted that the crimes in both cases were nonviolent.

“It would be different if they were armed robbers,” Ryan said. “... I think that they’re going to do a fine job. I don’t have any concerns about the kids being in danger or anything like that.”

Reed’s benefits coordinator position was created this year because the district’s current benefits coordinator is retiring soon, according to Ryan. He said the idea is for Reed to get some experience and learn how to handle the district’s insurance before that retirement.

The district will go back to one benefits coordinator after the retirement, Ryan said.

McClelland questioned the timing of the new positions’ creation.

“I don’t know why all of a sudden we need them now,” she said.

She thinks the district should use its money to hire more teachers to cut class sizes down. Ryan said in a previous interview that there are as many as 30 students in Cahokia classrooms.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

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