Opinion: Are there ways to keep and use Sangamon Elementary?

Before we begin here, let me tell you about what I am not: I am not a real estate agent, a mathematician, a public official who works with zoning or someone who fully understands taxes or what type of financial commitment it takes to run a building. Despite what some may think, I am not a political activist, but I am also not ignorant; I know that the way I think and my moxie to write those thoughts often stirs the pot.

I am not trying to stir the pot, though. I am a mother of three children who attend Mahomet-Seymour Schools and I am also a taxpayer. And so, the education of all children (because ultimately this part of our common life together) and tax money (also part of our common life together) interests me.

I am good at asking questions, listening, researching and starting the conversation. So, I thought with another reduction of price in the Sangamon Elementary property, it might be a good time to share some of my questions and research.

But first, some background.

The sale of Sangamon Elementary has always raised questions for me. I guess I understood why Middletown Elementary had to be torn down; and although the south part of Sangamon Elementary, which was built in 1951, is old and may not be safe for the long-term housing of students, the north part of the building, which was built in 1988, is still usable. 

Just for your reference (this is a neat list), Mahomet-Seymour High School was built in 1980 with an expansion in 2000. Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School, which housed high school students until 1981, was built in 1960. Since being built, MSJHS has had 10 rooms built onto it. Lincoln Trail Elementary opened in March 1967.

I do not understand why the junior high is scheduled to go out Churchill Road in 8 to 10 years and Sangamon is going out there first. These matters have not been discussed in an open board meeting to my knowledge.

Anyway, the Middletown Prairie renovation and addition is being erected, so that’s neither here nor there.

But, the Mahomet-Seymour Board of Education just lowered the bid price to purchase Sangamon Elementary to $600,000 last Thursday. The process of selling Sangamon began in May of 2015 when an appraiser told the school board the value of the property.

What is the value of the Sangamon Property?

The building, as it stood at that time, was worth about a half-million dollars. But once the Village rezoned the property for commercial use, the value of the property rose to $1.3 to $1.5 million, according to appraiser Steve Whitsitt.

During the meeting, Whitsitt also said with 3.6 acres, including about 1.7 acres behind the school, the district could ask up to $2.2 million for the property.

In that August 2015 board meeting, former Superintendent Rick Johnston said under the Open Meetings Act, real estate discussions can be held in closed session, shielded from the view of the public and the press, which has happened.

What we, the public, know is that the bid was set $1.8 million, a month later dropped to $1.3 million, then $750,000 and now $600,000.

Is the District (the taxpayer) getting the right amount for the property?

I looked into property values from the Champaign County GIS Consortium and found that recent property sales right across the street from Sangamon reflected the appraiser’s said value.

The property where One Main and the old Mahomet Area Youth Club used to be is 1.81 acres and sold for $1,106,000 in 2016 and 2017. The property where YoYo’s now sits is .55 acres and was purchased for $190,000 in 2015. At 3.6 acres, which is just under double the 1.81 acres where One Main sits, the land Sangamon sits on should be about $2,212,000.

Now, there is a building, a school, mind you, sitting on the property. I get that. A commercial developer will probably either tear the building down or renovate it in some capacity to turn the classrooms into usable business space. There may have to be some demolition and asbestos removal. I get that.

But, my question is, if the district is selling the property for $600,000, would it be worth it to keep the property?

Because 1.81 acres across the street sold for $1,106,000, could the district keep the building, but sell the back part of the Sangamon property, which is 1.75 acres, for more than they will get for the total property?

You see, as a parent in the district, I have a problem with classroom sizes. Could the district keep the building for older students? Could we solve an overcrowding problem at the junior high with the Sangamon property?

Let’s talk about classroom size averages.

According to the Illinois Report Card, kindergarten classrooms on average have 20 students. By enrollment numbers and the number of classrooms, Middletown Prairie kindergarten classes are at 19.6 students per classroom in 2017. Once students get to first grade, the state average is 21; in 2017, first-grade Mahomet-Seymour classrooms are at 23-24 students. The second-grade state average is 22 students per classroom; Mahomet-Seymour has about 24-25 students in each room.

The state average for third through fifth grade is 23 students; Lincoln Trail has approximately 27.6 students in each classroom.

As we get into state averages for grades 6 through 8, the average classroom remains about the same at 23-22 students, but in some classes at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High, there are 30-35 kids in one classroom. And in some high school classes, there are more than 30 students when the state average is 19 students.

When you get into grades 6-12, I understand that there are a variety of courses and different ways to make sure teachers have a certain number of students, but it’s difficult for students to get the attention they need in their class when the classroom is too big (and that is relative, I also understand).

Here’s where a little research is handy, although my sources don’t exactly line up, so I’ll be really open here. I asked for Mahomet-Seymour enrollment numbers via a FOIA request, and the district pointed me to the Illinois Report Card website where we can find the last five years of student population information by school and grade.

But I wanted to dig farther back than 5 years time. So, I found student enrollment statistics from 2002 for every school in the state on the ISBE site. These numbers do not match the Illinois Report Card numbers exactly, but this sample provided me with a little more insight to Mahomet-Seymour’s student growth.

The following chart shows the average growth between grades from 2002-2016.

You will see the highest average growth is from kindergarten to first grade, and from there, class sizes continue to grow on average until high school.

Because overcrowding at the junior high is an issue Superintendent Dr. Lindsay Hall has recognized, even suggesting that teachers may have to move to “teaching from a cart,” let’s look at junior high class sizes now in comparison to the projections of the class sizes for the 2016 kindergarten, first, second and third grade classes.

K to 1 2016 1 to 2 2016 2 to 3 2016 6, 7, 8 grade 2016 6,7,8 grade 2015
1 231
2 234 220
3 237 223 240
4 242 228 245
5 248 234 251
6 254 240 257 249 245 216
7 258 244 261 242 217 217
8 260 247 264 222 218 239
9 264 251 268
10 263 250 267
11 265 252 269
12 265 252 269

What I learned through my research (and my attempts at math) is that Mahomet-Seymour is not growing exponentially or uncontrollably, but classes are growing and students are in buildings that cannot house that growth without additions.

I was at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High the other day in a classroom I subbed in five years ago. At that time, the classroom had 10-15 kids in it. But, solely in observation, that same classroom had 30 chairs in it.

So, let’s bring this back to Sangamon Elementary. Could it be of value to the taxpayers to hold onto the Sangamon property to continue to house students? If we cannot build another junior high for 8, 9, 10 years, could that property help with the overflow of students at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High? Could we use that building to house sixth-grade students? Or fifth and sixth-grade students for a while?

Could the district really set itself apart from other public schools by using Sangamon to fill a gap between academic courses and vocational education?

With a shortage of trade workers throughout the United States, and reduced vocational programs throughout high schools and colleges nationwide, our country is experiencing the beginning of a shortage that could potentially damage our way of life.

As a society, we do not encourage students who want to learn how to build, create or fix. The buck stops at a test and a degree.

California is trying to reverse the steady erosion of students interested in learning a trade skill rather than attending a four-year college degree by pouring $6 million into a campaign to improve the reputation of vocational education and another $200 million into the delivery of the programming. (source)

Whether our students are interested in a trade vocation or desire to go to a four-year university, there is still great value in students having opportunities to learn how to build, create and fix through woodworking, cooking, welding, growing, cosmetology, dental assisting…among other options.

Maybe the district could team up with local business professionals to provide real-life entrepreneurial experiences for our students.

I was involved with helping the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship with marketing for over a year. This program gives high school students credit (and sometimes collegiate credit) for a one-year program that focuses on mentorship, networking, hosting community events and starting their own business. This program is growing throughout the United States, and next year, Blue Ridge, Clinton and Gibson-City-Melvin-Sibley High Schools will introduce it in their schools.

Yes, Mahomet-Seymour High does have some vocational programming. There are also some programs that have been cut over the years. So, this may be a pipe dream, but I think it’d be cool if we figured out a way to have additional opportunities at Sangamon Elementary for our all of our students.

Sangamon is public property. Could it be used for the betterment of our community?

Our community does not have space for people to gather. We are scheduling out the fieldhouse, which was sold to the public with the understanding it would also be available for regular public use. Groups are constantly looking for meeting spaces or spaces to host educational courses. People are consistently trying to figure out, “Where can we get together?”

And look, I know all of this is being scoffed at. There is no money, right? And these ideas take more money, more resources, more time. And we’re all out. I get it. I get it.

But I also think that if we have a public property that is going to be sold for much less than the land is worth, and our public has needs, maybe we should talk about the ways we can make something work with the Sangamon building.

Maybe Sangamon is worth keeping in the district a little longer. I don’t think we’ll own that property forever. And yes, I will be sad to see it go. But, right now, using this building seems like something we may need to do.

And while I may not be good at math and finances or understanding the way the world works, I do understand that we, as a community, have needs. And I also understand that we, as a community, have not been given the opportunity or the education needed to have a conversation about this property.

And although it may be too late, I think it is important that we do so now. It is important that we have public conversations about our life together.


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I may do it all, but I have not done it all.

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