Western School District debates cutting ag program, community fires back

The Western School Board heard nearly 45 minutes of testimony from different people, all with the same agricultural roots.

Strong words and emotions filled the cafeteria at Western High School Wednesday night. With the state of Illinois proposing $1 billion in cuts to education funding, the school board has discussed eliminating the district's agriculture program.

But the message was loud and clear from students and parents within the district: agriculture is vital to students in Barry.

"It teaches them everything, and if they get rid of that, this school is nothing," Carrie Sutton, a parent of students who have gone through the school's agriculture program said.

The Western School Board heard nearly 45 minutes of testimony from different people, all with the same agricultural roots.

Many expressed support for the program and the school's agriculture instructor Mary Barnes, who was moved to tears when a student pleaded for the board to reconsider, saying the proposed cut would 'ruin this community'.

However, the board wants the community to know that it understands the concern.

"There's at least four of us on the board that work in the ag business in one capacity or another, so these things are not things that we want to do, but unfortunately they're kind of being forced upon us," School Board President Lorc Weir said.

The problem is that Western, like many school districts, is at the mercy of the state.

"People expect to have the same services and do the same things we've been doing all these years with less money, and it comes to a point where that's not physically possible. You can't do it," Dr. Korhan Raif, Vice President of the board added.

About 60 students, roughly one-quarter of the high school's enrollment, participate in the agriculture program. It's a program that provides diversity in it's teaching with a focus on livestock, welding, carpentry, horticulture, and many other disciplines.

"Where are you going to learn anywhere else? You're an agriculture community," Klayton Miller, a junior ag student at Western High School said.

"Learning things like horticulture and planting are going to help you in the long run. You'll learn everything you need to know for skills and the environment in Pike County," he said.

The community urged the board that cutting the program cuts opportunities after high school.

That's why Miller said he would attend a different school next year if the program disappeared, and he knows other students who would do the same.

One of the board's biggest goals is providing options should the cut happen.

"Not having an ag program does not necessarily mean you won't have agricultural classes. You can still do those things, there's other ways of doing them, but maybe not in a traditional sense," Dr. Raif said.

"We've looked into some vo-tech areas, but we don't have a definitive answer on that yet but we're exploring some other options," Weir added.

Weir also said the board has discussed cuts for a long time, but a final decision won't be made for several weeks.

Dr. Raif said one option that could help the program is a proposed one-cent sales tax increase throughout the county. That issue will go up for a vote on Tuesday.

It's important to note that the Future Farmers of America program at Western High School is not a school program, merely an extracurricular that would not be affected by a program cut.

After Wednesday night's meeting, it appears someone will have to make a major sacrifice. The question is, which side?

"I think that's the thing that people need to understand: the school is here to stay, but we have to make some hard choices," Dr. Raif said.

"It's just something that everybody loves, and they're going to keep on doing it, even if they can't do it at this school," Miller said.

Along with the agriculture program, the school board is also considering an elimination of the band program.

Weir's biggest concern, however, was that if the state continues to limit funding, these proposed cuts may only be the beginning.