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In-Depth Interview: Interim Supt. For District 186, Robert Leming

Rachel Otwell/WUIS

WUIS caught up with Robert Leming on a variety of issues, including how high speed rail could affect schools in the district, his vision for changes with elementary schools, a residency requirement for school administrators, and more: 

 The interim superintendent for District 186 says he'd like to see more elementary schools built. Budget concerns are dictating much of the future planning for District 186. The new proposed budget is about $800,000 dollars in the red. Not ideal, but an obvious improvement compared to being 11 million in the red last year. Still, things could get worse the next year. Interim superintendent Robert Leming says he would like to see 2 or 3 new elementaries built so others could close.

"District 186 is an old district, we've got old buildings. We're opening two new ones this year, Matheny-Withrow is replacing the old Matheny-Withrow and Enos is being upgraded," says Leming. He says he'd like to see a new school on the north-east side in particular: "If it were me, it'd be over on the Wanless property and build a nice big school out there to serve the north-east corner of Springfield."

Leming says he hopes any future consolidations aren't simply about making cuts - but about providing better facilities for students. He's worked for District 186 for about 3 decades and says he will go back into retirement after his 100-day contract is up, if the board doesn't replace him before then. He acknowledges his limited time in the role makes it unlikely his ideas will be much more than personal visions for now.

The Springfield public school board will soon be approving the district budget for the coming fiscal year. Leming says it may look at saving money in the future by cutting down the amount of class periods taught each day in high schools. Some extra money will be coming from the city as part of TIF District agreements, though that is a temporary boost to revenue. Looking ahead, Leming says the district will likely consider changes to the high school class schedule to save money. The overall amount of time spent in classrooms would stay the same - but 6 instead of 7 classes could be taught.

“We would need less teachers, now that's not good for the teachers and that's not good for the student's selection process of which classes to take. But it's more economical to run a six period day schedule than it is a seven,” says Leming. He says that could mean the loss of 25 to 30 teachers in District 186. He says the idea will be discussed with the teacher's union and administrators.

Leming tells WUIS it's unlikely the district will try to pass a tax referendum anytime soon, though it's an option that's often discussed. He says the board needs to work on its public image and reputation before trying to get more money from taxpayers: "I always say the head don't look so good, but the body's great. And that's the school, and the kids and the teachers and the day-to-day activities. And the head being the board and central office."

Leming says the possibility of a referendum in the future is real, but there's no plan in place yet. It's been nearly three decades since the district was able to pass a referendum.

Also at the last school board meeting, some members said they're concerned with plans for high speed rail and how they might affect students and faculty. Consolidation of train traffic along 10th Street will have trains running close to both Lanphier High and Lincoln Magnet schools. Leming says that poses some questions.

"Really when you look at the rails as they surround Lanphier High School our concern was how close are they going to be the school - how safe is it? 40 or 50 trains a day that go up and down these tracks, is that going to be a distraction? I think it is," he says. The board is hoping to meet with planners to weigh in how the route would affect the schools. It could be at least 2 years until the construction phase begins. Leming says potentially a new high school would need to be built, but he thinks there is still time for the district to have some input.

The Springfield public school board meets tonight (8/12) to discuss what to do about a long-standing policy that says administrators must live within district boundaries. Leming says the number of administrators violating that policy now is unclear; the number could range from four to 15 or more. He says the policy will be made clearer and a time limit could be given to those who who need to move.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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