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Hiawatha School District 426 passes on change study

KIRKLAND – Some residents in Hiawatha School District 426 have expressed concerns over the financial health and academic quality of the district, but school board members are not interested in exploring a merger with any neighboring districts.

For the past five years, several residents have urged school officials to find alternative and cost-effective options for improving the district through a feasibility study.

Kirkland resident Lisa Upchurch said leaders need to critically examine how the district can optimize tax dollars to give students the best education. The costs of the feasibility study could be shared with participating districts, she said.

“Doing this study has no impact on our taxes,” she said. “Or are we afraid of what the results will show us?”

After a meeting that lasted about five hours Monday, school board members voted, 4-2, against commissioning a study of the district. The proposed study would have analyzed every aspect of the district – from finances to transportation – and compared it with other districts in DeKalb County and Illinois. The study would then have made several recommendations for reorganization, including possible consolidation with another district, such as Sycamore School District 427 or Genoa School District 424.

Board members Henry Burgweger and Christina Badgley voted for the study. Board president Sharon Miller – along with Tim Hall, Jack Novelli and Mark Wittwer – voted no.

Novelli said the study didn’t seem necessary. He said his children attend the school district, which has good schools.

“I can’t see consolidation with another school when we’re in good shape,” he said.

Sarah Willey, who took over as district superintendent last year, said Hiawatha schools are solvent for the moment. Officials have cut costs by reducing capital expenditures such as putting off purchasing new school buses, she said.

The district, which has an overall budget of roughly $6 million, has an overall deficit this year of $71,000, she said. It has reduced costs in the budget by about $450,000 in the past several years, she said.

Enrollment – currently at about 613 students – has remained steady over the past decade, she said.
Meanwhile, no state funding is available this year for a feasibility study, Willey said. The cost possibly could be shared between districts under the study, which could cost between $5,000 to $11,000, she said.

Willey also told board members that commissioning a study if they did not want change was a mistake.
“If we do it and we’re not willing to consider any of the recommendations, I think you’re going to have a more angry population,” Willey said.

Previous proposals by the district to raise taxes to improve an aging elementary school wing of the district’s main school building have failed at the ballot box.

The wing, which dates to the 1930s, had numerous health and safety violations, Willey said.

School board members voted to borrow about $4 million in 2009 to pay for the construction of a new elementary school wing, which since has been built. School officials said at the time the bonds would not increase local property taxes and would be repaid over 20 years.

Don Shepherd, who lives in the school district, said if a business has a strong product, they welcome comparisons with other products. He said the district should do the same, and that the board members who voted against the study did not have faith in their own product.

“I smell a rat when this school board doesn’t want to do a comparison,” he said.

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