SPRINGFIELD – Most people don’t think about it, but if you’re involved in it on either side, few things are as important. Now, the stories surrounding it, told by the people who lived it, are available on the School District Reorganization section of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) Oral History website.
“These interviews with 46 people cover school district reorganization from the 1950s to the present from all angles, and include stories by career educators, administrators, citizens and legislators,” said Mark DePue, director of oral history for the ALPLM. “Few things are more traumatic for otherwise vibrant communities than losing a piece of their identity when a cherished school is closed.”
The oral history interviews include parents and teachers on the front lines of the reorganization battle, as well as some well-known names: Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who served as chair of the Classroom First Commission; state Sens. David Leuchtefeld, Linda Holmes and Jeff Schoenburg; state Reps. Linda Chapa-LaVia and Roger Eddy; and former Illinois State Schools Superintendents Robert Leininger and Max McGee.
The interviews also include two Bureau County residents who were on the front line of two reorganizations.
Amber Harper is the former superintendent of the Leepertown School District, which was annexed into the Ladd and Princeton Elementary school districts July 1. Last fall, Harper received a call from Simon’s office and was asked to provide testimony before the Classroom’s First Commission.
“Leepertown’s challenges with consolidation had been noticed in Springfield,” Harper said.
After Harper testified, she was contacted by Phillip Pogue, who was in the audience. Pogue, who conducted the interviews for the website, asked Harper to participate.
Harper said Pogue came to her office and interviewed her, focusing mostly on the unique obstacles Leepertown had in its efforts to consolidate.
Harper said the oral histories provide the future generations with a look at schools in prior decades.
“Families have changed, and children have moved away from the rural areas and have not returned,” she said.
There are also fewer family farms, and the loss of industries and businesses in the rural areas makes it more difficult for families to earn a living. In addition, the rules and regulations governing schools has become greater, making it more difficult for the small schools to exist and meet the needs of their communities children.
“Hopefully, these personal oral histories will provide a better understanding of how Illinois demographics have changed over time and will be a contribution to the Illinois archives,” she said.
Also interviewed was current Bureau Valley Board President Keith Bolin, who was involved in the forming of the district.
Bolin said Pogue contacted him for an interview and came out to Walnut to speak with him about his experiences.
“I was able to tell what I know, the grassroots side of the story,” he said.
Bolin said he was sitting in an audience in June 1993 when he first heard a proposal for consolidation.
“I didn’t have a position on it at the time,” he said. “I struggled with that.”
Bolin was asked to be involved, and in the fall of 1993, Western High School brought forward another plan for consolidation.
Bolin said oral histories like his can give people a little perspective of what was going on at the time. He said there are lessons to be learned from looking back at the consolidation process.
“Bob Elliott always said the process was valuable,” Bolin said. “He said, ‘It isn’t just what you decide, but how you get there.’”
The School District Reorganization Oral History project covers how communities have handled school reorganizations through the years, including public hearings, feasibility studies and school referenda. Communities struggling with the need to reorganize have dealt with a dizzying array of issues, including locations and closures; tax rates; transportation routes; enrollment impacts; consolidations, annexations, detachments, dissolutions, conversions and cooperative schools; and that ever-important community symbol — the school mascot, dubbed “the most difficult animal to kill” by media covering school reorganization issues in Illinois.
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Want to take a look?
To see the interviews, go to www.alplm.org and click on the “Oral History” icon.