DECATUR — The Decatur School District's five-year strategic plan calls for reconfiguring building use, and Superintendent Paul Fregeau said that he intends to have options to consider at its Sept. 11 meeting.
With 22 buildings in the district, and just over 9,100 students as of the end of the 2017-18 school year, the district's resources are spread thin, Fregeau told the Decatur school board at its Tuesday meeting. No decisions on building use were made, though the board voted to authorize Fregeau to move forward with developing a plan.
“We've had a lot of input and a lot of meetings, and the overall criteria is the increased capacity of our programs,” Fregeau said in a discussion about plans to reconfigure the district's buildings. “To do that, we're going to have to make some changes.”
The district has twice been rejected by the Illinois State Board of Education for permission to use life/health/safety bonds to replace the aging Johns Hill Magnet School.
Long waiting lists for magnet programs at Johns Hill and Garfield Montessori School can't be relieved without increasing the capacity of those buildings. Durfee Magnet School and Johns Hill were both built in the 1920s, and are not accessible to those with mobility issues. Several school buildings still lack air-conditioning.
The options under discussion are: find a way to replace Johns Hill with a new building, likely on or near its present site; close Durfee Magnet School and possibly combine it with Johns Hill; make Stephen Decatur Middle School the district's only middle school, housing sixth, seventh and eighth grades; and convert Thomas Jefferson Middle School into a Montessori school which would house the Garfield and Enterprise School programs.
When asked Thursday morning for a comment for this story, Fregeau said it would be inappropriate to discuss the options before the Sept. 11 school board meeting.
Part of the district's five-year strategic plan is to consider changes for building use, and the board discussed the implications with Fregeau at the Tuesday meeting. Consolidating the students and programs into fewer buildings would make for more efficient use of limited resources, he said.
“We had eight or nine items here (under discussion),” he said at the Tuesday meeting. “We can't fix all the district ills in one or two or three years. Once we get this (first part) done, we can reset the boundaries, look at where we're at financially and enrollment-wise and can make the next set of discussions.”
At the board meeting, Fregeau said it would take several years to address all the building needs in the district, so he wants to focus on the top priorities, with hopes to make some changes in time for the 2019-20 school year.
One concern, said board member Beth Nolan, is where Durfee students would go if their building closes. The plan is far from complete, with the options only possibilities. Because Durfee is a magnet school, students come from throughout the district.
“If we take Durfee offline, and we don't have a transition plan, what is the thought process?” Nolan said. “Where do those students go? How do we accommodate them so it's as easy for them as possible?”
One idea, Fregeau said, is to offer those families “first dibs” on returning to their neighborhood schools or transferring to another of the district's magnet programs.
Another concern Nolan raised was if the two middle schools were combined, and if the two Montessori programs were combined, the school communities would need time to gel into one community and build camaraderie.
“If we revamp middle school education, they're going to have to collaborate on what that looks like,” Fregeau said. “I think that (camaraderie) will naturally happen as they're developing that plan. Whatever they come up with, that culture will begin. They'll be planning that program.”
Board member Sherri Perkins said she's received several phone calls from families in the Johns Hill neighborhood who have said they'd be unhappy if the district builds a new building in the Johns Hill neighborhood, and the school remains a magnet program.
“I'd like to have more discussion on what we're talking about doing,” Perkins said. “In fairness, if we build in that area, there's kids that live in that area that should have the opportunity to go to school there."