OTTAWA — The paper in Cristy Miskell’s hand trembled. Her knees shook. Two of her friends then quickly held her at the microphone as one whispered encouragement.
The Ottawa resident’s words fought through the anger, frustration and nervousness as she read from a long list of ways the Ottawa Township High School board of trustees could either save money or cut costs that did not include ending the building trades program.
At the end Miskell summarized a list that, according to her accounting, meant the district could trim $458,000 from its more than $3 million budget deficit. Certainly enough to save building trades instructor Dave Keely’s job.
Miskell’s speech was the only one out of eight speakers Monday night that seemed to sway the school board into considering action.
“Some were wonderful ideas, but some have already been implemented,” school board president Tim Creedon said, adding later that Miskell’s ideas could be looked into but that the board stands by its decision to end the building trades program.
Hundreds of students and community members attended the board’s regular monthly meeting in an attempt to pressure the board to reconsider its decision last month to end the building trades program.
Additionally, the board stated Monday publicly that it had conducted an official reduction-in-force procedure with regarding Keely’s position.
Ottawa Township High School Education Association filed a grievance alleging the administration violated its collective bargaining agreement by not following reduction-in-force procedures. Illinois Education Association uniserv director Stacie Walton said the teacher’s union is preparing for the issue to reach arbitration by as early as next week.
One theme consistently spoken of by students and community members who addressed the board accused the administration of “bullying and intimidating” teachers and students.
“We have no trust in the administration and the board in looking out for our students,” said Andree-marie Koban. “We question if really they are a priority to you. Our superintendent has become a liability with the wrong decisions and you the board are just as accountable.”
Ottawa superintendent Matt Winchester made no comments during the meeting addressing any of the accusations against him.
Typically, the board will recess for closed session at the end of the meeting. But when Creedon attempted to do so, the crowd protested and demanded the board talk about reinstating the building trades program.
Creedon explained that since the issue was not on the agenda the board could not address it. However, there is no law that states that, the only restriction cited in the Open Meetings Act is that the board would not be able to take action on an item not listed on the agenda.
However, the board did give in to the crowd by allowing Inga Carus to speak at the end of the meeting.
“Our local demographics show young people are leaving this area so by cutting building trades we’re giving more reason for young people to leave faster,” she said before ending with a shot at the board. “You should be ashamed of yourselves for punishing students for speaking their minds.”
What’s next? Group organizers said they would meet again before the next meeting to formulate a plan to continue pressuring the board to reinstate the building trades program. The board’s next regular meeting is May 19.
Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or firstname.lastname@example.org.