Jasper County Unit 1 Superintendent Andy Johnson served up figures and plenty of passion during the annual Jasper County Economic Development Inc. celebration luncheon last week.
Johnson talked about more than dollars during his speech for JEDI members and their guests gathered on Wednesday, Feb. 5, in the Sunrise Youth Center. He also covered the human “assets” for the school district and challenges many students face.
Johnson said the Jasper County school district is blessed with great parental support and half its teachers hold master’s degrees or higher. Many individuals and organizations, like the Parent Teacher Organization and Eagles for Life, donate time as volunteers in the schools or donate money. A good example of the latter was the $40,000 raised for the Newton Elementary School playground equipment as well as labor for preparing the ground.
Many students in District One are active in sports and extracurricular activities. They are talented in the classroom as well with fine teachers, administrators and support staff helping them. A group of Newton CEO students were present for the luncheon as an example of the fine young men and women in the school system.
But a big challenge for the schools are students needing counseling and social services. “Some of these students go to homes without beds, no clothing or even water. And they do not receive love,” Johnson said.
A mentoring program in the schools is helping many of these students. Adults come into the schools and spend some time each week with these troubled kids at lunchtime or through activities.
“Just one hour a week can help these kids so much,” Johnson said in praise of the mentors.
The social and emotion problems faced by many students can seem overwhelming at times. It can lead to disruptive outbursts in classrooms or even students considering suicide. The school district has enhanced its efforts – ranging from more one-on-one counseling to databases for getting the right help to students needing help -- to effectively correct or intervene for these troubled students.
“We want to make sure these kids are safe. We also want to make each classroom right for learning for all students,” Johnson said.
One big need for helping Jasper County students is a major building project, even though the total value of taxable property is dropping in the countywide school district.
“I don’t have a bunch of money, but we need a new building. We missed tomorrow. The district should have done this work 10 years ago,” said Johnson, who has been employed at Unit 1 Superintendent for four years.
The “ballpark figure” for construction at the elementary and Junior-senior high school buildings is about $25 million, Johnson said. The elementary work would add classrooms and more space for transferring students from the Ste. Marie Kindergarten Center. The future closure of that school would reduce transportation costs and add for “seat time” in classrooms for those students. Bus transfers take a toll on class time for the Kindergartners, Johnson said.
The Junior and Senior High building changes would add more space in different areas, especially the cafeteria, but that project is still being worked out. He mentioned adding an elevator in the multi-story high school could switch around some programs to better locations for opening space in other areas.
“We’re at the schematic design phase for each project. We’re still working on what we want to do at the junior high and high school,” said Johnson. He noted the school board could take a vote this week on bonds needed for the construction projects.
The school board is working with Johnson to determine the best way to fund all this work. He said some help might come from a state-funded school construction matching grant program now being considered by a task force in Springfield. That could greatly reduce the need to raise local taxes to pay for construction. Money generated by the local sales task for schools could also pay for a portion of the project.
“We have a phenomenal task ahead of us. But we’re not asking for a blank ticket. We want to reduce the potential tax increase from this work as much as we can,” Johnson said.
A cloud on the fiscal horizon for Unit One is the future of the Ameren Illinois Power Station. If shut down or switched to solar or other renewable energy production soon or in a few years, the school district and other taxing bodies in the county could face a major loss in tax revenue. The power plant was spared from the list of shutdowns last year for other Ameren coal-fueled power plants, but the future of coal as an energy source is uncertain. Unit 1 has already taken a big hit on tax money as the power plant has been downgraded over the past decade.
In 2006 Unit One had 58 percent of its taxes tied to the power plant, Johnson said. Now the power plant tax share for the school district is down to less than 18 percent, amounting to a loss of several million dollars in tax revenues.
“We’re going to have to make it without the power plant. We’re already planning for when that happens,” he said.
Johnson said he and some school board members have been working on the building project planning for nearly three years.
He wants to see it through, vowing that he is not just vying his time until he can apply for a higher-paying job in a larger school district. He and his family intend to stick in Jasper County.
“I’m not here to build my resume for better pay,” Johnson said. “I’m doing this for the 1,300 kids in our schools.”