Local control of masking policies: The demand from some Central Illinois superintendents

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CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WMBD) — Several Central Illinois school superintendents are criticizing Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) for not allowing local school boards to issue their own COVID-19 mandates.

In a public opinion editorial signed by more than 80 superintendents and boards of education across the state, eight of them are from Central Illinois. Those superintendents and boards of education are listed below:

  • MORTON — Dr. Jeff Hill, Superintendent and Morton District 709 Board of Education
  • MIDWEST CENTRAL — Dr. Todd Hellrigel, Superintendent and Board of Education
  • HAVANA — Mr. R. Mathew Plater, Superintendent and Board of Education
  • EUREKA — Mr. Robert Bardwel, Superintendent and Eureka CUSD 140 Board of Education
  • FLANAGAN-CORNELL — Mr. Jerry Farris, Superintendent and Flanagan-Cornell FC 74 Board of Education
  • TREMONT — Mr. Sean Better and Board of Education
  • FARMINGTON — Dr. Zac Chatterton, Superindentdent
  • DELAVAN — Dr. Andrew Brooks, Superintendent

In the letter, superintendents regarded top-down decisions from the governor and ISBE as, “a continuation of the pattern of higher officials substituting their judgments for those of local school boards.” They also cited concerns about scientific communication on COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) being “inconsistent at best.”

The group also levied criticism at the General Assembly, who they said they view as, “less a partner than an adversary in the education of our children.”

To say this is a challenging and unprecedented time understates it, but the zig-zag nature of decision-making out of Springfield has made it far more difficult to manage our classrooms, our schools, and our districts, creating unnecessary conflict in our communities. None of that serves our students – our reason for being – well. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s about all of the decisions that have been taken out of local hands by those who are all too distant from the resulting fallout. Enough is enough. Absolutely, it is the principle of the thing. Please, restore local control and accountability to our communities and those of us who know them best.

superintendedents, boardS of education

Dr. Zac Chatterton, Superintendent of Farmington CUSD #265, said he and other superintendents were actively involved in the final edit of the piece. He the defining moment for him was after Gov. Pritzker issued a universal mask-mandate back in August after previously leaving the decision up to the local school districts.

“It was first given to us the task of drafting a Return-to-School plan, and we spent a great deal of time, our board was very active in it,” Chatterton said. “We were very involved in putting forth a plan that we felt very comfortable with and then all of a sudden that was taken away from us.”

Chatterton said he believes this calls into question the role of locally elected school officials.

“They’re being suppressed in their ability to act on behalf of our community unless they want to be in defiance of the state mandates,” Chatterton said.

He said a few weeks ago they had their attorney present, advising the school board on ways to pursue gaining more local control, leading them to ask the General Assembly to be more active in advocating for local control.

He said eventually he started meeting with other superintendents and that led up to this point. Chatterton said he wants ISBE and the General Assembly to acknowledge and honor the roles of the local school districts.

“We feel like we have a pretty good handle on what needs to happen here in Farmington for our students and to keep all of our staff, students, and our guests safe when they come on campus and we’d just like the opportunity to have a little more local control,” Chatterton said.

Dr. Jeff Hill, Superintendent of Morton District 709, is one of the piece’s authors and said he’s been pushing for local control since July, including meeting with leaders in Springfield.

“Whether we’re talking about COVID, curriculum, or any other aspects of operating a school, each community has different needs, different thoughts, and different values and we want to be able to address those through local decision-making,” Hill said. “One-size, especially in a state as diverse and as big as Illinois, unilateral mandates on all those areas are just not good for communities and not good for students.”

He said the op-ed is just the latest push to get leaders in Springfield to hear them out and take a step back.

“Springfield can certainly set benchmarks and outcomes but in terms of the specific ways to meet those benchmarks and outcomes that should be left locally,” Hill said.

Dr. Todd Hellrigel, Superintendent of Midwest Central High School, outlined some of his thoughts about the letter in a statement sent to WMBD.

“I personally signed on to this letter because I believe strongly in our country and the values on which it was founded. Our ancestors came to this country to found a government with checks and balances and help the ordinary person have a voice through elected officials. This has been tossed out of the window with our current government and people need to be aware of the effects it is having on their children’s education. This isn’t about COVID, masks, or vaccines… it’s about running our government the way it was intended with our elected officials having a voice.” Hellrigel said.

He also said school districts have expressed their concerns to lawmakers in Springfield regarding the “mountains of unfunded mandates” placed on the backs of schools and taxpayers alike.

“People often cite the high taxes in Illinois, but they fail to remember that schools are just the casualty in the unfunded mandate ‘war.’ When Springfield passes a mandate, we don’t get a choice, our elected school boards don’t get a choice. Schools were founded on local control and state and federal government were not to be involved, but they have continued to work their way into schools and rob elected officials of their authority,” Hellrigel continued.

Havana Superintendent Mathew Plater also sent a statement to WMBD Tuesday.

“I signed on to this letter with the hope that our state leaders would start including school leaders in their decision-making processes instead of using the one-size-fits-all approach. Illinois is a very diverse state with over 800 school districts that are all very different. Continually handing down mandates without ever talking with school districts about the issues is very frustrating,” Plater said.

Plater expressed how the Havana school district learned what worked for their students and their community to prevent the spread of the virus in their schools, and they were able to provide in-person learning for the entire last school year.

“None of the people making these decisions ever called to ask why we were so successful last school year or to get any input from us about any future plans or mandates they were discussing,” Plater said. “This is a simple plea for our state leaders (Governor, ISBE, IDPH) to listen to individual school boards and administrators’ thoughts before mandating a one-size-fits-all rule. Right now, local school boards and school districts don’t have a voice or say in what happens in their own schools, and it is very frustrating. We know our students and communities better than anyone at the state level.”

Those who wish to read the full opinion editorial can do so by clicking the link below.

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