Name: Jacob Justen
Town: Crystal Lake
Office sought: District 155 School Board
Occupation: Commercial Credit Analyst
Education: Bachelor’s Degree, Columbia College of Missouri (Accounting, Financial Planning, Business Management)
Social Media: facebook.com/JakeForD155
1. What is your largest priority for District 155 if elected?
As I have talked to neighbors and voters, a consistent concern that is raised is spending and taxes. In Crystal Lake, District 155 accounts for a quarter of a residence's property tax bill. This is causing a crunch to family budgets, contributing to increasing rents for non-owners, and will influence business owners' decisions to move to or stay in the area. Student enrollment has declined and will continue to do so based feeder district and other population data. As I will discuss in the following answers, the school board will need to make changes to reduce costs and the burden on taxpayers; the Efficiency and Effectiveness Report prepared for the district recommended drastic budget cuts - up to 17 percent - as enrollment continues to decline. I believe that my background as a credit analyst will help me provide an independent voice on the board.
2. What changes should District 155 make in the future?
The district will need to continue to address staffing levels and the efficient and effective use of capital assets. Particularly, the district should review staffing of non-educators as this makes up nearly half of the 717 total employees. The district also needs to be reducing the number of division leaders and assistants as outlined in the Efficiency and Effectiveness report posted on the district website. As was done with the Haber Oaks campus, the district administration office should be absorbed into the school facilities; the office building on Virginia Road in Crystal Lake can then be repurposed, either to be leased or sold.
Additionally, the district needs to be more transparent with the community. Details of the recently approved contract were not made public until minutes before the vote, and the full contract was not made public until a full month afterward. The board is a public body; it cannot represent or be an advocate for the community without transparency.
3. What are your thoughts on how District 155 has adjusted to enrollment changes?
Declining enrollment district-wide is one of the most important issues facing District 155. Since the 2009-10 school year, enrollment has declined 16 percent. Enrollment will continue to decline over the next 10 years based on projections from the efficiency and effectiveness report using feeder district and other data. The district will need to continue to assess staffing levels as enrollment decreases, including reducing the number central and school administrators, as well as division leaders and assistants. Currently, there are eight students to each employee in the district (teachers, administrators, support staff). Like the Haber Oaks campus, which was sold and absorbed into Crystal Lake South, the district office could be absorbed into one of the school buildings and office building on Virginia Road repurposed and sold or leased to further reduce costs to the district.
4. What direction do you believe that District 155 should head in the future with its property tax levy if enrollment projections hold?
The district needs to be preparing for enrollment trends to hold; without a population or housing boom similar to what the area experienced in the early 2000’s it is not likely that the current trends or projections will reverse. Over the past decade, enrollment has declined from approximately 7,100 to 6,000 students. With these trends in mind, the district and the board have a fiduciary duty to prudently use tax dollars and to reduce the tax burden on the community. This includes adjusting staff levels as enrollment declines. Personnel costs compromise 79 percent of the current school year operating expenses. The Efficiency and Effectiveness Report recommends reducing the number of administrators in the central office and in each school. Also, as positions are vacated the district can hire more cost-effective staff or leave the position vacant based on staffing needs. The central district office can be closed and absorbed into a school building, allowing the district to divest the office building and further reduce occupancy expenses (utilities, property insurance, maintenance).
5. Do you believe that District 155 should consider closing one of its high school buildings in the future?
The district's efficiency report identified Crystal Lake Central High School for closure and repurposing due to the building's age and maintenance costs, as well as its location in close proximity to the down town area making it more attractive for repurposing than the other three campuses. The report projected annual savings of $4.2 million by consolidating to three campuses. However, it also set a benchmark for this recommendation at a 30 percent decline in enrollment; using the decline from 2009-10 to the current school year, enrollment would need to decline by another 1,000 students to meet the benchmark. In the meantime, the district office should be absorbed into one of the school buildings and the office building repurposed for sale or lease. This will reduce occupancy costs associated with the office (utilities, property insurance, maintenance/repairs) for annual savings.
6. How do you feel District 155 handled its recent teacher contract negotiation process? How do you feel about the resulting contract?
I was very disappointed with the way the district handled the teacher negotiation and approval process. There were no details released prior to the January board meeting at which the contract was approved. The agenda item for the contract vote was on Page 5 of the agenda and not listed transparently – it was only after local media inquiries to the district that it was confirmed to be the new contract. Media requests for the contract were declined and details were not made public until just before the vote – late on a cold night after much of the public audience had exited the meeting. A board member’s efforts to delay the vote until the following month were unsuccessful. The community was completely left out of the process and was unable to review or give any feedback on the contract. While the contract was recently publicly released, a full month after approval, it is difficult to offer an opinion as the details are so new and I have not yet fully reviewed the new contract or compared it to the current contract which runs through this school year.
7. How do you feel that District 155 has handled the disciplinary cases of teachers Matt Fralick, Rick Lima and Justin Hubly?
Commenting on the specifics of the three cases can be difficult as the specific details known through reports are not complete, especially in an open or ongoing case. It is important that the teachers, coaches, and other staff are trusted by the students under their supervision and the community. With criminal charges being filed, as was the case with Mr. Lima related to the theft of a large sum of money, termination of employment seems to be an appropriate action taken by the district. It also was appropriate for the district to suspend Mr. Hubly upon learning of the accusations and to alert authorities. Based on what is known publicly about the accusations against Mr. Fralick, it is not acceptable that after a leave in August he was allowed back in the classroom with students until being placed on leave again prior to his arrest. It appears, based on reporting, that the district was at least aware of the accusations involving the "grooming" of a minor. Whether or not the minor in this case was a student in the district, Mr. Fralick should not have been able to return to work with students in the fall.