A number of new hires and updates were presented to the Columbia School Board at last Wednesday’s meeting, but this did not stop ongoing issues from taking center stage.
At its February meeting, the board unanimously voted to not extend current Columbia Middle School assistant principal David Ackerman’s contract into the 2022-23 school year.
With that, the board posted the position and last Wednesday hired Jake Elliot of Champaign Unit 4 to fill that position.
The board’s decision to not extend Ackerman’s contract was met with a wave of opposition and, without the district releasing a statement on why this decision was made, sparked much confusion.
At last week’s meeting, the board unanimously approved Ackerman’s resignation, which was described on the agenda to “approve an administrator’s voluntary resignation as submitted.”
This raised Michelle Mueller’s eyebrows. The community member addressed the board via phone call with her concerns.
“This does not feel transparent of the board to keep an administrator’s name private on the public agenda,” Mueller said during the meeting. “If the non-renewal of Mr. Ackerman’s contract is already voted on, why is the approval needed for his resignation? There have been many steps in this process that have seemed suspicious – due process and proper procedures have not been followed.”
Columbia School Board President Greg Meyer acknowledged Ackerman’s name not being included on the agenda was an error, and informed the public before the board voted on the action item that it did pertain to Ackerman.
Meyer told the Republic-Times that Ackerman had submitted his resignation after the board took action in late February not to extend his contract.
It is the understanding of multiple district employees that the board was faced with two legal options after it decided not to renew Ackerman’s contract: “buy him out” or reinstate him in his current position or a similar one.
Meyer said he could not comment on this, stating “it is the official position of the school board members that we cannot comment on personnel matters.”
Mueller also stated she feared Ackerman’s contract not being renewed may have resulted in him being “bought out,” therefore leaving taxpayers to foot the cost of both Ackerman’s salary next school year and that of his replacement.
“How can the Board of Education that has taken an oath to be financially responsible with the district’s money justify paying two administrative salaries for one position?” Mueller said, earlier stating, “When many of the board members of this board ran for these positions a few years ago, they were very vocal on how important transparency and honesty were. However, we all left with the public speculating and spreading rumors about Mr. Ackerman, as they are unable to get accurate information about what really happened.”
Ackerman’s annual salary for 2021 was about $80,000.
In early March, Meyer told the Republic-Times that one of the common hypotheses for why Ackerman’s contract was not renewed – that the board did not like Ackerman and some held personal grudges against him – was “the furthest thing from the truth.”
Meyer made it clear after last Wednesday’s meeting that “Mr. Ackerman’s departure had nothing to do with criminal activity.”
Ackerman did not respond to the Republic-Times’ request for comment.
Following an executive session, the board unanimously voted to employ Elliott as CMS assistant principal and Erica Venne as Eagleview Elementary principal for the upcoming school year.
Originally, employing Elliott and Venne were listed on the consent agenda. With board approval, Meyer removed these two items from the consent agenda as he said it required discussion in executive session.
“The higher the position, the more scrutiny we are going to provide,” Meyer told the Republic-Times.
Meyer also said the board will slowly be implementing changes to its agenda structure, including not listing prospective administrative hire names on the agendas in case the board decides not hire them after further discussion.
Venne is succeeding April Becherer, who has been principal of Eagleview for several years.
“I do want to thank my staff at Eagleview – it’s been amazing. I want to thank the board and the community for my time here,” Becherer said at the meeting.
The school board also moved to employ four teachers and one high school guidance counselor for the upcoming school year. It also approved 11 resignations, a few being coaches who will take on other coaching assignments within the district next school year.
The board approved these extra-curricular assignments shortly after.
After discussion, the board voted to increase its straight substitute pay from $100 a day to $120.
Meyer said even at $100 for one-day sub pay, the district was competitive with surrounding districts.
“It’s good to know if we’re competitive with other districts, but I’m really just trying to reward the individual for their time,” board member Adam Hemken said.
As Columbia Superintendent of Schools Chris Grode – who was absent from the meeting but left studies on the topic with the board – recommended, the board approved raising its long-term sub pay to $170 a day. The current long-term sub pay is $125 a day.
Columbia Assistant Superintendent Alyssa Smith said 20 consecutive days in a position constitutes a long-term subbing position.
Smith provided an update to the ongoing district facility study – the city and district are joining forces to help alleviate traffic concerns stemming from Route 3 at the high school.
“The city and school district are jointly approaching IDOT with adding an additional lane on Route 3 that would run from the entrance of the middle school to a new entrance at the high school,” Smith explained. “This would be a turn only lane that would help with the back up and traffic that occurs daily during drop-off and pick-up.”
She said the idea was sparked during previous discussions of expanding the high school, yet an extra lane would be beneficial to the schools’ current situations.
“This idea did originally come up with the discussion of how we will accommodate more students as the Columbia community and potential addition of 800 homes occurs,” she said. “However, we are continuing to push forward with this because we know that the morning and afternoon times are congested and difficult for student drivers, parents and the community.”
In a combined superintendent and assistant superintendent report, Smith said the district is currently working on the reimbursal of COVID-relief sick days to faculty and staff per Gov. JB Pritzker recently signed HB1167.
The district is also expecting $409 to be divided up across its final evidence-based funding payments for the remainder of the year, as state-level error in its calculation caused the district to be underpaid since fiscal year 2019, Smith said.
The board also approved a Consolidated District Plan. Smith explained districts must outline how they plan to use the federal grants they receive.
Smith explained that in 2018 state testing, CMS’ special education population underperformed by state standards. As a result, the district had to create a plan to receive funds allocated to address these scores.
With all emergency days being used, the board approved May 27 as the final day of school. Smith said it will be a half day of student attendance.