By Herb Meeker

News Report Staff

Effingham Unit 40 School Board meetings rarely draw more than 120 teachers, coaches, parents and students.

But with teacher contract negotiations at a stalemate for months, the huge crowd in the school board meeting room Monday night was present to show support for settling disagreements and considering the teachers’ concerns. Some teachers and parents offered comments to the board members and administration regarding the contract dispute.

Amy Hewing offered an explanation, using a mixed bag of candies, on the difficult decisions many teachers face on meeting their personal expenses and those in the classroom, including classroom supplies. She told of teachers working a side job or tutoring to meet expenses, which takes away time from their families. But Hewing said that sacrifice is accepted by teachers because they have a passion for helping their students and their work does not end at 4 p.m. on weekdays.

“This is a teacher’s job,” Hewing said of the time spent on other people’s children. “This time is something we don’t have regrets about giving up. Each year, when 25 new faces walk into our classrooms, they become one of our ‘kids.’”

She also talked about an experienced teacher in the district with her own child facing special needs. She and her husband cannot afford health insurance for her children.

“This teacher’s children are children in our district. Are you doing what is best for them when our teacher pay scale is below state and even local averages?” Hewing asked school board members.

Nancy Ervin, another Effingham teacher, talked about how a fourth grade teacher made a great difference with her child. It was an act of kindness, but it is what great teachers do day after day. She said current trend on teacher pay and benefits could force some very talented teachers to leave the school district.

“One moment can change a child’s life forever,” Ervin said as she stood by the board meeting table in the crowded meeting room. “That is why we need to invest in our teachers.”

Chris Koester, of the Effingham Sportsbackers, said the lack of a new contract is hurting the community.

“A lot of people are speaking in the community. A lack of a contract is having an effect on morale,” said Koester, who recently served as a school board member. “We’re at a crossroads here.”

Koester offered an optimistic note on the situation, saying many believe “you’re going to get it done.”

Chris Kreke, another member of the Sportsbackers and father of three Unit 40 students, also expressed faith in that everyone involved in the negotiations will keep focused on one goal.

“(I know) everyone in this room has the same thing in mind: What’s best for the kids,” Kreke said.

After hearing the comments, school board president Jeff Michael offered a promise that the board was committed to reaching an amicable solution.

“The people sitting at this table did not run because we want to control things. We ran because we believe in education. We believe in the kids and the future. And we’re trying our very best to find the best solution that works for everybody; not just today or the short-term, but for years to come. Because education is a priority that will not go away,” Michael said.

The board then went into closed session to discuss contract negotiations, as well as student discipline and matters relating to employees, including employment. All those subjects are exceptions to the Open Meetings Act.

After meeting in closed session for more than 90 minutes, the board returned to complete action on the remainder of the agenda. Many people stayed during the closed session and through the end of the board meeting, but there was no action taken on the contract or additional comments made.

After the meeting, Unit 40 School Superintendent Mark Doan said another meeting is scheduled between the board and teacher negotiation teams. He did confirm that bringing in a mediator to settle the dispute has been considered.

Families facing busy schedules in August will have the option to register their children online at the start of the 2018-19 school year. Assistant Superintendent Jason Fox said the software will offer quick signup (5 to 10 minutes in some cases), payment and also 24-hour support when problems arise. Parents can download required documents and photographs.

The vote for the online registration option was unanimous, with Michael joined by board members Todd Schaefer, Carol Ruffner, Kathleen Smith, Jane Willenborg, Patty Russell and Angie Byers

In addition, parents could pause and check back in if they are interrupted. It was noted, however, that students registering online will not attend classes through cyberspace. They must still head to school buildings through the week.

Effingham City Police Department will provide a school resource officer in Unit 40 schools under a new three-year pact approved Monday by the school board. The SRO program provides not only on-scene security for schools, but also positive engagement between students and law enforcement.

The cost to the school district will be $25 per student enrolled during the 2018-19 school year – the current enrollment is 2,491 students throughout the district. The cost per student will be $26 during 2019-20 and $27 for 2020-21. Doan said those rates are higher than what the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department had charged, but he noted the law enforcement agency, which covers other high schools in the county with SROs, was considering increasing its costs to the school district.

The decision by the county to switch from Effingham schools was deemed a way to commit another deputy to regular patrol duties in the future. The current county SRO will continue his duties in Effingham until the end of the current school year in May.

Doan said the Effingham City Council showed support for the SRO program. With council approval, an Effingham officer will be named as the new SRO in coming weeks.

In personnel matters, the board approved hiring Katherine Diener, Central School fourth grade teacher; Josh Morton, fifth grade teacher at Central; Lisa Lauritsen, special education teacher at Effingham Early Learning Center; Andrea Durbin, kindergarten interventionist at ELC; and Vicki Luppino, ELC cafeteria monitor.

Rob Davies, Katie Koester and Jeff Delong were approved as Effingham Education Foundation directors, based on Foundation recommendations.

The following employee transfers were also approved — Michelle Morrissey, Effingham High School; Kami Hefner, South Side School first grade teacher; and Deb Spence, K-2 general interventionist at South Side and ELC.

In an effort ot save up to $1,520 per month on phone and Internet services, the board approved upgrades on phone lines and megabyte capacity through Consolidated Communications. Slight changes were also accepted for student handbooks at Central and South Side. At Central, smartwatches will be added to the restriction on mobile devices and new wording simplifying the definition will be added to the handbook for South Side students.