DeWitt welcome sign

DEWITT — Life’s little surprises.

It was supposed to be a routine meeting for the Central DeWitt School Board.

Instead, it was an end zone celebration after winning the Super Bowl on a desperation “Hail Mary.”

OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.

Still, seeing two prominent Clinton County officials high-fiving unsuspecting Central DeWitt Community School Board members livened things up a bit.

Just like the DeWitt City Council did a month ago, the school board embraced an intergovernmental student-loan-assistance program that aims to woo young college graduates to live and work in the county.

At a time when the overall labor pool continues to shrink, there is a growing need to attract workers in numerous professions. Young college graduates, in particular, are highly coveted.

“No-brainer,” school board member Angela Rheingans said immediately after the county’s presentation.

She and the other board members gave Superintendent Dan Peterson the authority to negotiate the details of an agreement with a company called Peanut Butter Student Loan Assistance, which administers the program.

Rheingans, who also is executive director of the DeWitt Chamber and Development Company, said she just “loves” the program

“There is no magic pill,” she said. “But this is an economic development tool that serves as a worker-retention and attraction tool.”

Andy Sokolovich, who is the existing-industry manager of the Clinton Regional Development Corp., Clinton County officials, and Auditor Eric Van Lancker have been leading an effort to spread the Peanut Butter concept. The municipal governments and school districts in the county’s three biggest communities — Clinton, Camanche and DeWitt — now have jumped on board.

That means the county and six other government entities are pooling their money to enhance the appeal of the incentive, and they also are splitting the cost of a static administrative fee to Peanut Butter seven ways.

Up until now, Peanut Butter has put virtually all of its efforts trying to persuade employers in the private sector to use student-loan assistance to attract young college graduates.

But Sokolovich and Van Lancker learned about what the company was doing and wondered why Clinton County couldn’t do the same thing, albeit with a twist. The county now appears to be the first in the nation to leverage public dollars with other government entities for that purpose.

The county plans to provide the incentive to roughly the first 40 qualified people who move to the county to live and work. Enrollees will earn about $1 per day — $30 per month to be exact — that will be applied toward the principle of their student loans. Enrollees still would have to make their scheduled payments, but the county’s assistance will shorten the life of the loan by paying down on principle — as much as $2,000 in total over a period of five years.

“Student loans hurt the economy,” Sokolovich said. “Graduates with big student loans aren’t buying cars, they aren’t procreating; they aren’t spending much money.

“We think we would be getting much more in return if they live and work here and spend money and raise families,” he added.

Furthermore, because of the county’s agreements with the six other government entities, there now is a way to double, or even triple, the amount of money being applied toward a student loan. If a person moves to DeWitt, Clinton or Camanche, the person potentially could earn another $30 per month from the city as well as another $30 if he or she is residing within the school district.

“Now we’re talking big money,” said Sokolovich, referring to the appeal of the incentive as a result of the combined financial investments.

Officials discuss concerns noted in ‘exit surveys’

Board members and top educators in the district also discussed what they learned from reading “exit surveys” that were filled out by the most recent high school graduates.

Everyone agreed that they were pleased by what they saw, and not only because there were many indications in which the students acknowledged that the district fulfilled its overall educational mission and purpose in many respects.

“Many of the answers and comments validated what we thought, but the important thing is that they took the survey seriously,” Rheingans said. “And conversely, we took their feedback seriously.”

But even when the surveys asked for comments with regards to areas in which the district could improve, many of the students hit on some legitimate concerns. Many of the comments were lengthy and well thought out, and it was satisfying that there were not many flippant responses.

“It’s a data-driven society,” Rheingans said. “The district is not required to conduct these surveys. We genuinely want their feedback.”

Several students wrote about concerns revolving around scheduling, suggesting that they couldn’t always get the classes that they wanted.

This did not surprise George Pickup, principal of both the middle school and high school. He said he has been keenly aware of some of the frustrations.

“I would never advise someone to drop a fine-arts course in order to take a rigorous course, but that’s the kind of decision that they will face, especially juniors and seniors in the band program,” he said. “That’s the type of thing that I’ve been worrying about in my 12 years since I’ve been here.

“The band program has gotten so big,” Pickup continued. “Does it make sense to offer more than 20 spots for a rigorous course like physics? That’s the kind of reality we wrestle with.”

The board also worked to finalize the schedule for upcoming school board elections. For the first time, the school board elections will coincide with those for the city council.