PRINCETON – The new Common Core learning standards, finances and school safety were three of the topics discussed during a special joint meeting Monday between the Princeton Elementary School Board, State Sen. Darin LaHood and State Rep. Don Moffitt.
School safety plans
Board member Terry O’Neill brought up the issue of school safety, saying he would like to see boards allowed to discuss school safety plans in closed session. There are currently about 20 reasons allowing a board to go into closed session, but school safety and security isn’t one of them. The details of a school safety plan is something that might not want to be made public because there could be a risk in making those details public, he said.
LaHood said he’s not aware of any current discussion about school safety discussions to be held in closed session. The current trend is for more transparency and for more to be done in open meetings. Unfortunately, if a tragedy does happen because school safety information has been put out there, then that defeats the purpose of the safety plan.
However, the Attorney General’s office is very strict about the Open Meetings Act, and school districts would have to justify the need, a potential harm or threat to students or staff, in order to move into closed session to discuss school safety, LaHood said.
Moffitt said he also hasn’t heard of any current discussion on allowing school safety plans as an exemption to the Open Meetings Act, but he sees the board’s concern. Obviously, there are things that protect students which should only be known to emergency personnel and administration. There is a need for more discussion on the issue, he said.
After further discussion, LaHood said he will look into the issue of allowing school safety discussions in closed sessions and see if any other states have addressed the concern with legislation.
Common Core learning standards
PES Board President Judd Lusher asked if there was any legislation in the General Assembly being considered on slowing down the implementation of the new Common Core learning standards adopted in 2010 in Illinois.
LaHood said he has not yet seen any legislation asking for the implementation of Common Core standards to be halted and a thorough review done on the new standards. In his opinion, the new standards should have gone through the full legislature for better discussion and evaluation. Instead the Illinois State Board of Education presented the new standards to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations (JCAR), which adopted the new standards.
LaHood said he faults the people who started the standards, as they brought them out, and now the school districts and teachers are caught in the middle through no fault of their own. School districts are all different, and one size does not fit all when it comes to education, he said.
As a member of the 12-member JCAR, Moffitt said he was one of three members who voted no to approving the Common Core standards. The proposal needed to go before the full General Assembly for evaluation, he said.
PES Superintendent Tim Smith said his staff is overwhelmed by the Common Core standards, and morale is at an all-time low because of it. There are no text books for Common Core, and Internet sites don’t all agree. Teachers want to help their students, but teachers feel like their hands are tied, he said.
PES teachers Mary Ann Goetz, Dave Hartz and Mandy Carr also addressed the legislators about their concerns about the Common Core standards and standardized tests in general. The focus used to be on the kids, but now the focus is on scores, Hartz said.
Moffitt and LaHood said they would support legislation to slow down the implementation of the Common Core standards.
Looking at the issue of finances and maintaining the current state income tax increase, Moffitt said this will be a big issue in coming months. He’s concerned the increase, approved nearly four years ago, won’t be temporary but permanent, which is what Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants. If the state income tax increase is allowed to expire, the state will have about $1 billion less to spend this year. What finally happens will depend a lot on who is elected governor in November, Moffitt said.
LaHood agreed, saying this will be the big issue between now and the November election. When the increased tax rate was put into place, before he went into office, the people were told it would help Illinois help pay off its debt and put the state on the path of financial stability, but that hasn’t happened, he said.
Smith also talked to the legislators about the problem of unfunded mandates, especially the area of special education. Costs are going up, but revenue is not, he said.
In related financial discussions, Moffitt and LaHood said Illinois needs to create a better business atmosphere to encourage business growth which would give school districts a better tax base. Also, neither legislator was in favor of a possible increase of the minimum wage at this the time. If the state had a surplus, then that would be different, but with businesses struggling in Illinois, now’s not the time to increase the minimum wage, LaHood said.
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