District 87 Q&A on tax incentives, AI, and a retiring administrator
The head of Bloomington public schools says he's comfortable with an incentive plan to build a high-end housing complex in Bloomington, despite the potential loss of future tax revenue.
The city council will consider an agreement next month to offer up to $4.5 million in tax breaks for the development through a TIF (tax increment financing) district. In a TIF, developers get tax breaks for building in underdeveloped or blighted areas.
District 87 superintendent David Mouser said the city has assured him the city will help cover added costs if the development leads to more students.
“TIFs are something that are always concerning, but we have a positive relationship enough to have the city willing to help offset some of the costs and do right by schools,” Mouser said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.
The property, which previously housed the Coachman Motel, is largely vacant. The city council delayed a vote on the project this week over concerns about the use of non-union labor. The council expected to reconsider the plan on June 12.
Diane Wolf retiring
Diane Wolf is in charge of teaching and learning at District 87 schools. The assistant superintendent is retiring after a 31-year career in education, a majority of that in Bloomington.
Wolf said education has come a long way since her early days taking attendance on pen and paper.
“Now we have all of our students have a 1-to-1 device (personal computer or tablet) on which they can access the world,” Wolf said. “The role of the teacher has changed so much and I think that’s the exciting part about being in education now.”
Wolf said education has had to adapt and it will, with the latest technology that could transform education — artificial intelligence. ChatGPT can generate human-like text on command almost instantly.
Wolf said the next generation of educators will need to make sure AI doesn't hurt students' learning potential.
“We are going to have to get back to a root belief that the human mind has to be a critical thinker,” Wolf said.
Wolf said ChatGPT is already in the classroom and teachers are trying to understand how it can be a help rather than a hindrance for students.
Wolf said as she retires, her concern is that not enough students are in the classroom. The latest Illinois School Report Card from 2022 shows District 87's rate of chronic absenteeism was 43%, well above the state average. The rate was nearly 50% among Bloomington High School students.
Wolf said she and her successor, current Mahomet-Seymour assistant superintendent Nicole Rummel, are stressing the need for students to stay engaged, not just for learning but also for social engagement.
“If a child is not there, they don’t get that benefit and then they come back and feel like they’ve been left out,” Wolf said.
Wolf said the classroom disparities that educators have known about for years became evident to all during the pandemic. She added COVID also reinforced educators’ core belief that students need supportive relationships.
Wolf noted District 87 was one of three school districts in the state to receive funding through the Illinois State Board of Education's IL-Aware program that helped administrators better respond to students having mental health issues. The district has embedded mental health counselors in each of its schools.
District 87 schools end the school year with a less severe teacher shortage than recent years, but Mauser said it's still a concern.
“When you get into areas that are more specialized, think math, think science, think foreign language for example, those positions are very difficult to find candidates,” Mouser said.
The district has about 25 teaching positions unfilled for the fall, according to Wolf. That's about half the vacancies the district has had in recent years.
Mouser said teacher turnover is not as high as it was during the early stages of the pandemic when students took classes remotely. Mauser said the district also has struggled to fill administrative position due to a small pool of applicants.
The district has announced Connie Morgan, an educator from southern Illinois, to be the next principal at Irving Elementary, pending approval of the District 87 school board in June.
Morgan is currently serving as principal at a grade school in Marshall, Illinois, a position she has held since 2016. She previously taught art at Carbondale High School and chaired the school’s fine arts department.
“Principal Morgan brings years of experience in administration and a track record of success. Her background includes serving in diverse settings, and we are thrilled to welcome her to the D87 family,” Mouser said.