Decatur Issues

The foundation of our democratic society has a cornerstone in our public schools yet I see that cornerstone being chipped away more each day. Decatur’s public schools haven’t escaped the downward spiral of the public school system and our schools have had their controversies – some have even gained national attention. The Rev. Jessie Jackson spent several days in Decatur after several black students were expelled after a brawl at a football game. Jackson and his supporters felt the expulsion was unfair and excessive while the school board thought otherwise. Racial tensions were running high in Decatur during that time but those tensions certainly haven’t left us. I’ve seen this first hand as a parent of a Decatur Public School student.

A couple years ago my daughter, who was in the second grade at the time, saw many of her classmates leave after new school boundaries were redrawn. The new boundaries resulted in a much larger percentage of black students being bused in from other areas. Many parents weren’t too happy with the changes and when a couple black lunch supervisors were accused of picking on the white students at recess – all heck broke loose! Several parents, many of whom had been very active in the school and PTA, decided to pull their kids out and send their children to private schools instead. My daughter told me she saw two of her teachers in the hallway crying because they had learned many of their best and brightest students were leaving – and so were the parents who often volunteered in their classrooms. There’s something very wrong with our society, if we leave our teachers standing in the hallway crying, while we walk out on our schools for racial insecurities and prejudices.

I’ve had many parents tell me they would never send their kids to Decatur’s public schools because, “There’s too many black kids”. I’ve heard it too many times. Having the son of the ghetto go to class with the son of a CEO is an important lesson for kids (and parents) to learn. Having kids of all different colors, socio-economic backgrounds, learning abilities and talents attend school together, is a lesson on life, that many of our kids are missing. How can we have a true community with a shared interest when we are so segregated and becoming more so in our schools?

If our public schools are failing, it’s because we abandoned them. If our kids aren’t learning, it’s because we’re not teaching them. If our nation is divided by race and social class, it’s because they learned it well by our divided school populations. Parents should have the right to send their kids to parochial schools if they choose, but I’d hope it would be for reasons of faith, not for irrational fears or prejudices. I’d hope we’d all choose to support our community’s most important key to success – our public schools. That means we have to be there and not leave our teachers standing alone in an empty hallway.

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In today’s newspaper details of the single high school concept in Decatur were revealed. I had heard rumors and suggestions of this before but this is the first detailed pitch we’ve been presented with. The Decatur Public School Board has suggested merging Decatur’s two remaining high schools, MacArthur and Eisenhower, into one campus. A sales tax is being proposed to fund the project – how much of an increase is needed is yet to be determined. The proposed location is in Decatur’s “central core” near the Wabash Crossing development.

There’s a lot of pros and cons to such a plan:

PROS:

  • A state-of-the-art building that could provide more educational opportunities in different subject areas.
  • Inner city revitalization – This is an area of town that needs redevelopment.
  • Community Pride – One thing that I’ve always noticed about small towns is the commitment and pride they feel for their schools. If you attend a sporting event in a small community, practically the whole town is there cheering on the kids. Decatur is divided in its’ loyalties and I think since Stephen Decatur High School closed, a lot of the pride has diminished for a lot of people – closing Stephen Decatur was a real kick in the gut to all us Stephen Decatur graduates who are now parents and grandparents living in Decatur! It feels traitorous to go to Eisenhower or MacArthur and cheer on the enemy! 😉 I say name the school Stephen Decatur High School and you got a winner!
  • College Prep – I don’t know if this is part of the plan but I’d love to see more college prep classes and even classes that count towards college be made available; possibly a deal with Richland Community College and Millikin University could get kids on the right path towards college in their Junior and Senior years. If a kid could graduate with a high school diploma, and a considerable amount of transferable college credits, that would be a great incentive for them to continue their education.

CONS:

  • Cost – Will Decatur residents be willing to pay a higher sales tax in a weakening economy?
  • Eisenhower and MacArthur’s buildings would be vacant. What would we do with those buildings? Are they marketable?
  • School Size – As a parent of a 5th grader, I would assume my daughter (and son) would be attending this high school, if it is built, and I’m concerned of the size of the school. Would it be overwhelming and a place where kids feel totally lost?

These are just some initial thought floating around in my brain after reading today’s article. I’m sure other pros and cons will be brought up in the community over the next several months!

Here’s a link to the Herald & Review article if you haven’t read it.

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Lake Decatur

(Above: I took this picture of Lake Decatur on a very windy day!)

The city of Decatur has been debating how best to increase Decatur’s water supply, for several months now, however no clear plan has yet been established on how best to actually accomplish that goal. One thing is for certain. It’s clear that we need to dredge our current lake at a much quicker pace than we currently are. Basically at the rate were dredging the lake now, we’re barely making progress at all for one simple reason; we take out about the same amount of silt that washes back into the lake every year. So we’re looking at a never ending dredging project! Clearly we need to speed up dredging but we also need to prevent silt from reaching the lake in the first place. Silt is basically just the dirt that’s washing down the Sangamon River from field run-off. There’s two ways to combat that and they both need to be employed. One is building a silt dam to collect the silt before it reaches the main lake; the second would require a change in farming practices in the Sangamon River watershed. The use of environmentally friendly farming methods would help prevent and/or drastically reduce the amount of soil run-off from farmland in the watershed area. Many farmers are already doing their part to prevent soil erosion but many simply aren’t doing enough. This would probably require a state-wide mandate of some sort, however I’d rather it be accomplished through education efforts. Admittedly, I’m not a farm expert but I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to require fields have so many feet of “green space” between tilled soil and nearby ditches, creeks and rivers. We’re losing great amounts of topsoil from some of the richest farmland in the nation every year because of current farming practices – we’re also putting our water supply at risk. It’s not just dirt that washes from the fields but also chemicals.

(Above: Photo of the approximate location for the second lake on the northeast side of Decatur. Photo taken from Greenswitch Road. No that isn’t the new lake! I think the new lake is supposed to be a tad bit bigger.)

The second major solution to increase Decatur water supply is a second lake. The various proposed locations of the lake has caused a little bit of controversy through the past couple of years. It was even suggested that the lake be located in Forsyth, even though Decatur water customers would be paying for it! That was a short lived proposition. The most likely location, or at least the one that’s still being talked about, is on the northeast side of town – just north of Mound Road near Stevenson Grade School. A portion of this lake would still be within Decatur city limits but the larger portion would not be. In a recent city council meeting it was estimated that out of the 300 homes that could be built around the lake only about 30 would actually be in Decatur’s school district. Personally, I would love the see the lake become a conservation area. There’s two very good reasons why I’d like to see this happen, one I’m a tree hugger 🙂 and two, this would eliminate the political battles that would inevitably erupt between Decatur and our communities to the north – who stand to benefit much more financially from the lake than Decatur – even though Decatur would be paying for it. Honestly, I care more about conservation than the money part. There is very little land in Macon County that isn’t either cultivated or developed and I want to make sure that we put some serious thought towards conservation for area wildlife and us two legged creatures. The north side of Decatur, and even Macon County, has very little undeveloped land for wildlife and recreation. I grew up not far from the proposed lake location and I’d like to see this area become something that future generations will appreciate – not just another money maker for developers. I don’t have anything against people wanting to make money but not at the expense of the land and wildlife. Yes, I’m a true environmental nut!

I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about water in the coming months and I’m also sure you’ll be seeing me, before the city council wanting more room for the critters! I don’t know if I’ll make any difference but I’ll be there!

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