WEST FRANKFORT — Retirements in education are commonplace — each year vacancies are made in school district across the region as staff members step down, making room for fresh faces.
It gets complicated, though, when there are several leaving at once. It's even more complicated when a district’s financial picture isn’t complete.
Just ask Matt Donkin.
At the end of this school year, Donkin, superintendent for Frankfort Community Unit School District 168, will have four retirements in the high school alone, leaving five classes without instructors including art, Spanish, P.E., special education and English. And that doesn't even take into account retirements at the lower grade levels.
Donkin said over the month of January, he and his team will be looking at the positions and classes they need to fill and get a gameplan together. However, he said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent veto of a clean up bill that is attached to the recently-passed school funding formula throws a wrench in an already complicated process.
“We don’t yet have the final numbers on what we should receive this year,” Donkin said of the school’s budget. The vetoed bill aimed to cleanup the sweeping overhaul of the school funding formula passed last year. According to an AP report, Rauner vetoed the bill because it would prevent some Catholic and parochial schools from participating in a new scholarship program.
Schools across the state were waiting after the budget impasse was resolved last summer because while funding had been allocated for them, a formula for how to disperse the money had not been passed. This came in the fall, just as many schools were crying uncle from years of delayed or insufficient funding. However, a recent clean-up bill was proposed in Springfield designed to work out the kinks in the formula and its operation.
With the governor’s amendatory veto, Donkin said the date schools can expect to know what their funding level will be for this year — the one that is halfway finished — let alone next year’s is pushed back.
He said some still believe April is a viable target date, but he’s not sure.
Still, he has five classes that students will fill next year and he has to make sure there is an instructor there to teach them. The question is, how does he move forward?
Opportunities checked with responsibility
Mary Slider is a unique instructor — she not only handles all the Spanish language course work at Frankfort Community High School, including a dual credit course, but she is also the school’s art instructor.
On any given day, she could be helping students mat a photograph for a gallery show, and then cutting a cake for Día de Reyes for her Spanish students.
Slider is a twofer — for the price of one senior-level teacher, the district is able to check off two difficult-to-fill classes. However, after 19 years with the school, she is retiring this year.
Looking ahead, Slider said she certainly wants her legacy to be maintained, but said she thinks some changes are needed not just at Frankfort District, but across the board.
“We have to change and I think we have to provide doorways for these kids and not hallways to go down,” Slider said. “We really need to open some more doors for kids who need opportunities in different directions whether it be a trade or whether it be college prep.”
Her students would seem to agree.
Brianna Paris is a junior at Frankfort Community High School. She currently works and said some guidance from the school on how to handle that, especially going to a college class load in the future would be welcomed. She said she sees this problem with other students, as well.
“They don’t know quite what to do with a working job and their school at the same time,” she said.
Senior Niccolette Tindall said she would like to have seen more college-prep classes. She said she envies schools that were able to offer classes dedicated to applying for schools and scholarships.
Slider said with so many vacancies opening up at once at the school, this could be an ideal time to make some changes. She said there needs to be a more proactive approach to change within education both in Southern Illinois and beyond.
“I just feel like this after-the-fact-fixing isn’t doing any body any favors,” Slider said. “We need to look at a huge shake-up.”
Donkin agrees with Slider, but with a bit of checked enthusiasm. He said while he can see this as a time to make changes, he said there are a lot of factors that he also has to consider.
“You balance off the direction you want to take a school and the opportunity you have to tweak things going forward versus the fact that come August, you will have children in a classroom who need a teacher in front of them working with them,” he said.
Donkin explained that financial balance also has to be taken into account, which is why the recent veto and extended funding timeline are making this year tough. He said he has obligations to his current staff for establishing where and how they will be employed come next school year, but this isn’t easy when you aren’t sure how you will fill holes that will open up. He said it’s a gamble but they will just have to pull the trigger and hope for the best.
“At this point, we will probably push forward trying to find the applicants, but this is the dilemma we face … We want to and need to be fiscally responsible but this is the environment we continually find ourselves in,” Donkin said of the constant uncertainty of funding these last several years.
While he would hope to replace teachers leaving with new, young instructors, Donkin said this may not be as easy as it sounds. He said there are fewer people going through universities to become teachers and there are now more hoops for those who do go into teaching to jump through in order to get to the classroom — these same hoops affect Donkin's ability to shift personnel around within his district, too.
This more limited applicant pool is why he would prefer to start advertising as soon as possible — he doesn’t want to miss out on that perfect person. But still, he said these uncertainties and questions are affecting how he is thinking about his current staffing dilemma.
“It shouldn’t on the education-side but if you are thinking on the business-side it should,” Donkin said.
One option when trying to fill these holes Donkin said is to bring in retirees — two electives at the high school are taught by such instructors. This isn’t perfect either, though. He said they are limited in how many hours or days a year they can teach and Donkin said there is something to bringing in new life to the school. He said he likes to keep a good balance of new, mid-career and veteran staff in his roster.
“… Are you keeping a young, up-and-coming teacher from grabbing one of those spots and becoming part of the community,” Donkin said.
Slider said she knows she could get a phone call later this year.
“They might call me back because I am able to do that dual credit,” Slider said, adding that it wouldn’t be a sure thing she would answer.
“Will I come?" she said. "I don’t know."
Donkin said uncertainties or no, he has to do something, so he is doing the best with the information he has.
“We are kind of in a position of trying to look across the board at programs and our operations and asking the questions: What is it? Does it work? Is there a different or better way to do it,” Donkin said.
“We are supposed to be offering things like art, things like music at the secondary level so we need to figure out a way to do it, staff it and have somebody properly in there and to have the electives available."
— EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to properly name Frankfort CUSD 168.