CHERRY — Cherry School District 92 will not receive help from Springfield this fall in its quest to send students into La Salle County to Dimmick next fall.
In addition, Cherry residents still might not know the fate of their school or the destination of their students by the end of the coming winter.
In late summer and early fall, state Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) told school officials he had a bill number available and could get the Cherry-Dimmick merger approved in the fall veto session — if all neighboring districts and the Bureau-Henry-Stark County Regional board were not opposed to the merger.
“He told us he would not submit the language for the bill in the veto session,” Cherry superintendent James Boyle told the NewsTribune on Monday.
In October, Mautino asked Boyle if he had heard from Ladd and if the Ladd board had shown it would support the busing of Cherry students out of the Hall High district into the La Salle-Peru district to Dimmick, Boyle said. The Cherry superintendent said Mautino told him since he had not heard a definitive answer from Ladd, he would not introduce legislation.
State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), whose district stretches into eastern Bureau County, confirmed that the legislation — if Mautino had introduced it — would not have moved forward without support from Ladd.
“The first question they’ll ask in committee is, ‘Is everybody on board?’” Rezin said, meaning neighboring elementary school districts and the high school district. Since the Ladd board has continued to seek answers to several questions rather than rendering an opinion, legislation to endorse a school consolidation would never get out of committee, Rezin said.
Mautino said the General Assembly’s education committee leaders talked to each of the schools “to find out if there is an agreement, and at this time there isn’t.” He said Cherry school officials will need to consider their options, such as continuing to operate next school year (which would mean incurring debt), working for a future referendum vote by Dimmick and Cherry district residents, working out an agreement with other school districts in the Bureau-Henry-Stark County Region or paying tuition for students to go to other districts.
Too late for referendum?
Further complicating matters, Dimmick School superintendent Ryan Linnig said he believes the deadline for Dimmick and Cherry boards to get March 18 referendum paperwork to the regional office of education has passed.
Bureau-Henry-Stark Regional Superintendent Angie Zarvell said the state board of education informed her the week of Oct 7 would be the date needed for her office to receive notification of a referendum because of the obligations and timelines that need to be met. She added that these dates are “approximations” and the only firm date is Jan. 9, the final date for submitting paperwork to place a referendum question for Dimmick and Cherry voters on the ballot.
Zarvell said there would need to be a 10- to 15-day notice of a public hearing. After the public hearing, the regional board would have 30 days in which to make a decision. Then there would need to be a 35-day time period in which a group or individual could contest the regional board’s decision.
Boyle said school district subcommittees are considering any other possible ways to make the merger happen. Linnig said both districts have lawyers looking into ways to complete the merger.
“I think both school districts are committed to seeing what’s best for the students and seeing that the merger goes through … I think both districts are focused on trying to find some way to get it done,” Linnig said Tuesday.
Dimmick and Cherry school boards both have meetings in the third week of November, and the superintendents hope to be able to direct board members toward a solution then.
Streamlined process? Hardly, says Linnig
A year ago, Cherry and Dimmick officials originally thought they mainly needed the regional office of education approval and the merger would go through. Linnig said they later learned they could have no opposition from neighboring districts. Linnig said he’s frustrated because just a couple years ago, public school districts in Illinois “were being bombarded with bill after bill to encourage consolidation.” He said Illinois initiated the Classrooms First commission that studied how to streamline the voluntary merger process rather than mandating consolidation.
But Linnig says the process for Cherry and Dimmick obviously has not been streamlined.
“When it all came down to it, the politics of the deal trumped doing what’s best for the kids,” Linnig said.
Further, some Ladd officials have been saying they have no guarantee all the Cherry students won’t wind up going to La Salle-Peru for high school. However, Linnig said there is no way that will happen since the Cherry district sits squarely in the Hall High School district.
Time to talk?
Rezin said she still thinks the school officials from Dimmick, Cherry, Ladd and other parties that possibly could be affected need to sit down at a table and discuss the matter. She said she believes the first place where issues need to be resolved is at the local level. She indicated that continued discussion in the public, instead of among the boards, brings a lot of emotion and the potential for misinformation into the discussion.
Mautino suggests the superintendents and board presidents all get together to talk.
“I always hope for a compromise. I think we have good schools within (our region) and hope they can sit and work things out,” Mautino said Tuesday morning. “You want to do what’s best for the kids and for the long-term health of all the districts involved.”
Mautino said some La Salle County districts are likely to be looking at similar decisions in the future.
“This is not an isolated incident,” Mautino said.