Altamont Unit 10 school board vice president Kerry Wolff, center, discusses points of interest for the five Effingham County schools during a joint meeting of the school boards held at the Effingham Unit 40 office Thursday. Listening to Wolff are Unit 40 school board member Angie Byers, left, and Dieterich Unit 30 board members Cory Niebrugge, to the right of Wolff, and Thad Goebel, right.

EFFINGHAM — Two members from almost all of the Effingham County school boards met in Effingham for the first time Thursday to discuss opportunities for the schools to collaborate and to discern each district’s interests.

Representatives from Teutopolis Unit 50 were not present at the meeting because of a special school board meeting held at their own unit office Thursday.

The meeting of the county school boards was the brainchild of Altamont Unit 10 school board Vice President Kerry Wolff, who, along with school board president Shelly Kuhns, represented the Altamont school district at the meeting. Representing Beecher City Unit 20 were board members Jordan Shields and David Doty, and Cory Niebrugge and Thad Goeble represented Dieterich Unit 30 while Angie Byers and Jane Willenborg represented Effingham Unit 40.

Kuhns said the purpose of the meeting was for the board members to get to know each other and to make their own individual school districts stronger by working together.

“For us, this meeting is about collaboration, not consolidation,” Kuhns said. “We’re here because we’re all strong communities that have great school systems and want to keep it that way. There are vulnerabilities that we could maybe work on together that would make us each stronger and be able to maintain strong schools.”

Wolff said the idea for a collaborative meeting of the school boards came after he attended a statewide school board meeting in Chicago last fall. He said that the issue of school safety arised, and he saw first hand the divide between rural and urban schools.

What really triggered Wolff to establish a meeting for the Effingham County schools was Illinois Senate Bill 1838, he said. They bill, if approved, would establish a School District Efficiency Commission that would recommend to the governor and the General Assembly which schools should reorganize their districts based on enrollment numbers.

These school districts would then be required to put a referendum on a ballot asking voters to designate which school districts should reorganize and possibly consolidate. The bill is still in the Senate assignments committee as of July.

“I’m certainly one who, when it comes to consolidation ... the association of rural school boards, they don’t believe in forced consolidation, and I don’t either. If two schools sitting next to each other decide ‘hey, we can do better by getting together’, more power to them, but for Springfield to come into our county or Marion County or Coles County and pick out a couple schools and say you guys to continue to get state money need to consolidate, that’s a non-starter for me,” Wolff said.

The school board representatives also discussed the possibility of shared instruction between the five schools and rural and small school interests. Kuhns pointed to programs in which the districts already collaborate, such as CEO, CTEC, agriculture and industrial tech, Health Occupations and more.

Kuhns also mentioned the prospect of schools sharing instructors in areas like Spanish classes and agriculture. She said finding Spanish teachers to replace those leaving the Altamont district has been a struggle for the schools, and Niebrugge expressed the same issues in the Dietrich school district.

“Teaching, as a whole field, is a almost, unfortunately, a dying breed. There’s teaching jobs out there that need filled. It’s so vacant. Nobody is wanting to replace the teachers that just retired,” Niebrugge said. “That’s one thing that’s come up numerous times. We’ve been fortunate enough to fill all our positions, but it is always a fight, tooth and nail, to just get a position filled.”

Niebrugge added that the district at times also struggles to find bus drivers and referees for sporting events.

Both Kuhns and Niebrugge discussed a possible remedy to the teacher shortage that most of the Effingham County school districts are facing. They recommended adjusting the way the school districts present the teaching occupation and to also encourage students who go into teaching to come back to their own school districts to work.

Meanwhile, the various school board members agreed to continue meeting, but to rotate locations and host school districts.

Byers said she would like to see the board members continue to meet because each school district could benefit from a collaboration. Shields agreed.

“I think it’s great. I know principals and superintendents and teachers network, so I think it’d be great to do the same with the school boards,” Shields said.

The Effingham County school board members will again meet on Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. in Dieterich with a location to be determined.

Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.

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Kaitlin Cordes covers Effingham County, police and courts and sports features for the Effingham Daily News. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University. Cordes is a native of Effingham.