Western School Board at "starting point" to offer ag classes

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Feb. 20, 2020 12:01 am

BARRY, Ill. — Western High School juniors and seniors will have the opportunity to take agriculture classes starting in August thanks to a partnership with John Wood Community College.

In the meantime, the school district will work with a community committee to look at reinstating a full-time ag program, possibly as early as January 2021.

"The John Wood courses could be at least the way we start at a minimum. That, to me, is mostly like a supplement to what an ag program here could be," School Board member Jeff Neese said at Wednesday night's meeting.

"It's a starting point," board member Lorc Weir said.

"As we get more kids interested, if we have enough interest to start our own, we can look into it."

Superintendent Jessica Funk said the JWCC option gives the school district some "middle ground" to broaden what it can offer students.

"We're trying to find an alternative to where we're getting some ag-related classes available," Funk said. "We're an ag community."

Under the plan, students will start their day taking dual-credit classes at JWCC's Ag Center near Perry. Funk said students taking ag classes in their junior and senior years would need one more semester at JWCC after high school to earn an ag applications certificate.

"We're looking for ways that our kids can walk out of high school and if college is not their thing, that's OK (but) can we get you in a decent wage job to where you can support a family," Funk said. "We're exploring lots of those avenues of how best to fit needs of those going to college and those choosing to enter the workforce."

The Western School Board cut its ag and band programs, along with longtime ag teacher Mary Barnes and first-year band teacher Philip Kagan, as a way to save money for the 2014-15 school year. The cuts were expected to save the district about $100,000 as board members looked for ways to trim an ongoing deficit amid shrinking state dollars.

Band was reinstated this year with about half of the district's 120 junior high students enrolled.

"Right now music hasn't really cost us anything," Funk said. "We already had the teacher. We were able to work it into the schedule with that person. All we have had so far is repair of instruments, and we were able to pay for that out of grants."

Plans call for adding a part-time teacher for the 2020-21 year to help with scheduling as the band program moves to the high school.

District parent and farmer Bryce Bushmeyer asked the School Board in November to consider reinstating the ag program.

"It's important to be able to offer an ag program for our kids being we're in an ag community and surrounded by other schools with strong ag programs," Bushmeyer said. "My hope is to get some of the younger generation excited and interested in ag. There's a lot of opportunities, not just farming but in the ag industry as a whole."

Bushmeyer and Funk hope to have a meeting in the next two weeks for the "ag boosters" group to explore what's needed to offer a program and to build community support.

"There's several opportunities there, I feel, to really jump-start things," Bushmeyer said. "They need to see how much support we can get. If we have overwhelming support, it's going to make that decision for them so much easier."

A survey found about 60 of the 140 high school students were interested in ag classes, but there are stumbling blocks, including the cost, to bringing back the program.

Hiring a first-year teacher, already an obstacle with the ongoing teacher shortage, will cost an estimated $43,000 for salary and benefits plus a stipend for FFA as well as providing all necessary supplies and equipment.

"We have nothing from our former ag program. All of that was grant funded, and when we cut the ag program, all of those materials got redistributed to other districts," Funk said. "We would be starting from nothing in terms of materials and supplies."

A state grant offers $5,000 for the first two years of a program for supplies and materials, and the district faces additional costs for events and additional supplies -- up to nearly $10,000 a year based on information from neighboring districts.

"That might be the easiest part, getting materials, tools and stuff," Neese said. "People love to donate that kind of stuff."

But the biggest stumbling block for Funk remains the potential cost of new state mandates for a $15 minimum wage for noncertified staff and a $40,000 minimum salary for certified teachers.

"We don't know what that's going to cost us. We haven't negotiated that yet with our union," she said. "We have a contract that extends through next school year, but we have to open that up this year because by July we will be out of compliance with minimum wage laws with some employees."

Western already partners with JWCC to offer a welding class at the high school, which allows students to graduate with a level one welding certificate to walk straight into a welding career. Eleven students currently take the welding class, Funk said, and those earning a C or better in the first semester of junior year and maintaining that performance qualify for incentives -- $125 from the district toward the second semester class for juniors and $150 toward classes in senior year.

Plans call for adding a JWCC electrical class at the high school in the 2020-21 year.