‘Rift’ a topic for Columbia School Board

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With recent controversy surrounding the employment of a district administrator still on the minds of many teachers and staff, one Columbia Middle School teacher approached the school board Thursday night with suggestions on moving forward. 

And the board responded.

Amber Haven, a CMS fifth grade teacher, was one of 11 district employees to approach the board in support of CMS assistant principal David Ackerman in February when she heard his contract was in jeopardy of not being renewed. 

Ultimately, the board reached a settlement agreement with Ackerman paying him $50,000 plus a letter of recommendation in exchange for his resignation. 

Haven spoke again at the May school board meeting, stating there has been an evident rift between the board and some district teachers and staff. 

“Everyone in this room knows what happened to Mr. Ackerman wasn’t transparent and it didn’t feel right, but the teachers still haven’t given up on building a relationship with the board,” she said. “We want your collaboration, but we want to make sure the members of the board practice what we’ve instilled in our kids and expect in our community.” 

Haven provided suggestions for how the board can help bridge this divide, such as visiting – and even substituting in – the schools, directing community members to voice complaints in writing to the board and engaging with district employees when addressing such concerns. 

“You can speak with the teachers, speak with the building administration and get to the root of the situation before making a decision that negatively and directly impacts a human life,” Haven said, later adding, “Doing one, some or all of these things could help bring our community back together.” 

During the board president’s prerogative at the end of the meeting, Greg Meyer acknowledged there is a “rift” between the board and some district employees and that he “would like nothing more than to find a way to bridge that and get everyone together.” 

He said he would visit the schools as Haven suggested. 

Meyer also took this time to explain that while the vast majority of the board’s business must be done in public, there are certain circumstances – such as discussions between the board about employment – that cannot. 

“The business of the board is absolutely everybody’s business in this community,” Meyer said. “As much as everyone has a right to know the district’s business, (employees and others in the district) have the right to privacy. We respect people’s privacy and that’s why we’re unable to comment on certain things. These things are handled in (closed) executive session. (Topics) like individual students, employees and legal matters are kept confidential because of the sensitive nature of the issue.” 

“I love transparency, I would love to sit here and tell you every reason for every decision we ever make, but it’s just not possible and I’m sorry for that,” Meyer concluded. 

Ackerman did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

In other business, the school board decided it will host a public hearing for the amended 2021-22 district budget at 7 p.m. June 23 in the district board room at 5 Veterans Parkway in Columbia. 

Typically, Columbia holds budget hearings at its regularly scheduled meetings, but because it is required to have the budget publicly posted for 30 days before each hearing, they could not do so at its June 16 meeting. 

The budget is posted at columbia4.org under the “Board of Education” tab. Columbia Superintendent of Schools Chris Grode said the budget the board received at its May meeting is updated with the exception of pending payroll. 

Carla Wantuck, Columbia Education Association’s former president negotiations chair and Parkview Elementary teacher representative, asked the board during the building report to consider adding a stipend for teachers engaged in mentoring new teachers. 

She said this could be feasible considering a past legislative session increased the budget for such programs. 

“Mentoring a new teacher is a huge responsibility,” Wantuck said. “It’s very time consuming, and it’s that mentor teacher’s job to make sure that the (new) teacher has success. This weighs heavily on that mentor teacher’s shoulders.”

Assistant Superintendent Alyssa Smith said she is looking forward to “revamping” the mentor teacher program this summer, but did not specify if this will include stipends. 

In her report, Smith also said the district is wrapping up end-of-the-year benchmark testing, along with compiling the data. 

“To see the growth that our students have made from the start of the year until now is unbelievable,” Smith said. “I think that it’s directly related to our students being excited to be back in school – we’re not in hybrid, we’re not on remote learning, they’re back in school where they love to be and they thrive and they love to work – but it’s also the dedication of our teachers because a lot of gaps were there when our students went through this pandemic and so they have worked exceptionally hard to get those up.” 

In a follow-up to the facility study report Smith delivered at the April meeting, Grode said high school teachers are completing surveys in which they are stating what they believe high school renovations must entail. 

The board had not yet heard if the Illinois Department of Transportation responded to the board and city’s joint request for altering Route 3, which Grode said would be a key component when expanding the high school. 

“Ultimately we’d love to see a third lane on Route 3 between Bottom Avenue all the way up to Sand Bank because of the stuff that’s going in at 11 South. A third lane there all the way up to Sand Bank would make a lot of sense. A right in, right out of the high school parking lot off of (Route) 3 would also be something that we’re pining for,” Grode said. 

The district is currently looking for career and technical education instructors, a sign language interpreter and a guidance counselor or social worker to serve elementary students. 

The board approved extending the term of the Mississippi Valley Employee Benefits Intergovernmental Cooperative Property Casualty and Employee Benefits Pools, and appointed Grode to be the board member with Smith as the alternate. 

The board also approved the first reading of PRESS Issue 109, which outlines recommended changes to board policy, with Grode specifying more discussions on the policies will come. 

The Harcourt Houghton Mifflin Into Math Curriculum was also approved. 

The next regularly scheduled Columbia School Board meeting will be at 7 p.m. June 16 in the district board room.  

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