Large crowd gathers to challenge school closings, matter continued for special Saturday Board of Education meeting
More than 240 people, including 42 speakers, packed the Administration Building Tuesday, Feb. 8, in a tense meeting of the Rockford Board of Education.
In a marathon session ending at approximately 11:30 p.m., speakers representing Auburn High School, Barbour Language Academy, West View Elementary, ACE High School and others, begged District 205 officials to re-think the closure of eight schools as part of a massive budget-cutting measure.
Some opponents of Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield’s proposed cuts were brought to tears.
“We have an amazing, close-knit staff,” A Dennis Early Education teacher said tearfully. “Everything that we do is for our kids. Dennis, itself, is special because of the nature that surrounds it.”
Dennis is one of eight schools Sheffield has recommended the board close next year as part of a plan she claims will slash the district’s deficit by approximately $45 million.
Board members also had questions about whether closing certain schools would be in the best interest of students.
Sub District B representative Jeanne Westholder said parts of Sheffield’s proposal would dismantle the neighborhood school zoning plan passed last November.
“We have to know where we started from,” Westholder said, referring to maps indicating student populations and where children would be sent to school for the 2011-2012 academic year. “That does not put students in a school where they would be part of that residential zone, as we have them drawn. It doesn’t do that.
“If we are going to be closing schools, I just want to be careful how we do that. If we are going to close schools where there are many students and we are going to keep schools open where there are few students, I want to understand that we might be doing that.”
Westholder gave officials examples, based on space available in specific buildings, of how closures could make sense and the district could to adhere to the zoning plan.
“I’m not asking that we put programming into every single building,” Westholder said. “I am saying, how do we put the majority of those students back toward their home school and still provide programming without increasing staff?”
One option, Westholder said, centers on space available at Lewis Lemon Elementary School.
“If we have space at Lewis Lemon now,” Westolder noted, “why wouldn’t be have it if we leave Haskell as it is, open Lewis Lemon as the neighborhood zoned school (and) put your bilingual students over there? There’s ways to do it.
“But, here we are, and things have now changed because now, we are talking about closing schools. What we proposed and voted on in November was different. And now things have changed. We are dealing with a new plan.”
According to Sheffield, it’s up to the board to make a final decision.
“The board has a right, Ms. Westholder, to do whatever they want,” the superintendent said. “My job is to tell you the consequences. If we were to move all these (bilingual) students out, it would cost us 86 teachers.”
Westholder challenged Sheffield’s response, saying the district must stick to the zoned plan.
“(The) goal is to keep schools open, near where our students are,” Westholder continued. “That is what the rationale was for zoned schools. Why wouldn’t we do that?”
Sheffield said taking Westholder’s advice could cause racial division within the district, something she’s been speaking against since coming to Rockford.
“If we take the bilingual students out of Spring Creek and Marsh and put them on the southwest side,” Sheffield said, “we would have a truly segregated district.”
Board member Alice Saudargas attempted to join the discussion, but was stonewalled by Board of Education President David Kelley’s request that further questions to be sent to the administration in writing.
“I’m not going to do that,” Saudargras said. “I have them written down right here.”
Board member Harmon Mitchell, before the meeting adjourned without a vote, asked the superintendent why the presentation did not detail the proposed sports partnership with the Rockford Park District.
“Is that something that’s real?” Mitchell asked. “Is this something we were going to address?”
“We are working as fast as we can,” Sheffield said. “We tried to meet with all of the constituencies and community groups. We met with the coaches. We have listening sessions tomorrow night. We will get it to you as fast as possible.”
Sheffield said she wants the board to vote on program cuts Feb. 22 and have next year’s budget plans in place by March 30.
Meantime, discussions are scheduled to resume at a special board meeting Saturday, Feb. 12, at noon.
The Rockford Board of Education meets each Tuesday evening, at the District 205 Administration Building, 201 S. Madison St., downtown. Meetings are open to the public.
Print This Article