Supporters pushing for merger with less than a week before referendum

By Nick Kovatch on March 11 at 7:06am

vote yes no

With the election right around the corner, supporters of consolidation between two area school districts held an informational meeting last night in Ashland.

The gathering at the St. Augustine Church hall was set up to include a panel of members of organizations both for and against a merger between A-C Central and PORTA school districts. However, no members of the group “A-C First”, which is against the idea, accepted the invitation.

Members of “Kids First,” a group mainly made up of individuals previously serving on the “Committee of 10” that looked into consolidation and recommended it to both school boards, answered questions such as: will the high school in Ashland close, as opponents claim?

Jeremy Garner, the only member of the A-C Central board in attendance, says it won’t.

“The Ashland building, we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars upgrading it, making it a top notch facility. You look at it, you look at the PORTA schools, they’re all great facilities, and before anybody would close down the Ashland facility with all of its millions [of dollars] in updates, there’s probably a smaller school like the elementary school over even in Petersburg they would look at closing down before they were close anything up here,” he says.

“This building’s not going anywhere at all.”

Garner is running for the new school board that would form if consolidation passes next Tuesday. All nine candidates signed a pledge that they would keep the school in Ashland open. Garner says, though, that the Chandlerville elementary building will close if consolidation happens.

“Not much money’s been put in it from the school board for the last 20 years. It’s not in great condition,” says Garner. “Our board president has stated that Chandlerville will only be open long enough that it is financially responsible to keep it open, and we’re getting to the point now with our finances [where] I don’t see how much longer that will take place.”

The A-C board has applied for a $50,000 state grant partially to fix the gym bleachers and plumbing in Chandlerville.

The proposed merger would send all A-C Central high school students to PORTA’s school in Petersburg, although the new board would have the final say. About 100 students would move from Chandlerville to Ashland.

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“Kids First” members say their opponents are using “bogus information” to criticize PORTA’s financial situation. Al Grosboll, the co-chair of the Committee of 10, explains.

“They have indicated that, because PORTA has borrowed money, that A-C taxpayers are going to have to pay it off. The law says that if a consolidation occurs, each old district pays off its old bonds,” says Grosboll.

“So, A-C Central taxpayers must pay off A-C’s old bonds, PORTA taxpayers must pay off PORTA’s old bonds. There is no way that A-C citizens would be paying off any of PORTA’s bonds.”

Grosboll says both school districts have borrowed about 60 percent of their bonding capacity.

PORTA superintendent Matt Brue says his district is projected to have a balanced budget next fiscal year, but how that was achieved has been the subject of controversy from the anti-merger side. PORTA sold $3 million in “working cash” bonds in 2013 to make sure the district had money in the bank.

“Most school districts sell working cash at some point in time, if not on a regular basis,” says Brue. “In times like we have now in Illinois where school districts are short changed- 11 to 17 percent is what we’re hearing in general state aid next year- we have to find a way to make sure we have cash on hand. Otherwise, our schools won’t run.”

Most of the crowd last night was in favor of the merger, but at least one person questioned why A-C would want to merge with a district that has been on the state board of education’s financial “watch” list.

The members of the eleven-person panel argued that it was a one-time occurrence, is no longer the case, and that A-C has been on the list twice in the same time frame.

Grosboll claimed during last night’s meeting that members of the A-C board have been meeting with Virginia School District officials to pursue that avenue of consolidation. That idea was most recently shot down in a referendum in the April 2011 election.