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Rep. Jeff Keicher fields questions from Sycamore school board on mental health, safety, teachers

SYCAMORE – Illinois House Rep. Jeff Keicher, R-Sycamore, fielded questions this week from Sycamore school board members about youth mental health and school safety amid a mass shooting in Texas where 19 students and two teachers were murdered.

During his 45-minute report, Keicher updated board members about topics that have been discussed at the Illinois House of Representatives. The House adjourned for the summer on April 8. While Keicher’s report focused heavily on education, he was asked about what additional legislation should come as a result of the shooting.

Board member Julenne Davey asked Keicher what is being done about children’s mental health after the Uvalde, Texas shooting at Robb Elementary School. The board meeting was held Tuesday, the same day that the shooting occurred.

“What are you doing to make it better for our kids, because obviously, it ain’t being done right now,” Davey asked.

Keicher responded that the Illinois legislature is looking into improving mental health programs at schools throughout the state.

“There was a mental health pilot program that was introduced ... to put social workers into classrooms,” Keicher said.

Board member Eric Jones asked Keicher what can be done to attract teachers to Illinois and fix the pension issues in the future.

“What is being done at the state level to make the licensing easier?” Jones asked Keicher.

Keicher responded that the state is obligated to pay agreed-upon pensions.

“Our pension obligations that we have made as a state to teachers, educators, first responders, fire fighters, police officers, that is a sacred oath the government has made to them in perpetuity,” Keicher said. “We can’t go back and change that, that’s in our constitution. We need to own and step up.”

Keicher said that the state needs to grow its economy.

“We are still the lowest bond-rated state that’s out there,” he said. “We are still paying a higher interest on the debts that we incur because of not taking serious considerations.”

Keicher said that the state is predicting a population decrease of students graduating from Illinois high schools.

“So that natural population of folks that are coming into our system is shrinking, so we’re already seeing part of that, and we’re seeing part of that in the job force,” he said.

To attract new teachers to Illinois, Keicher recommended focusing and expanding two scholarship programs: the Golden Apple and Grow Your Own.

“I think a piece is proper training, proper support, making sure that’s there, and the scholarship programs that will forgive partly dollars they incur for teacher certification,” Keicher said. “We also did pass a minimum teacher salary requirement as well two years ago. We hope that has an attractive nature as well.”

Keicher also said that it was important to “make sure the incentives are there.”

“Without the front-end salaries, we’re not getting the best and brightest, we’re not attracting enough people,” Keicher said. “So we have to offer enough upfront opportunities to have people come in the door. I think that’s how you help solve it. You’ve got to fix the pension, got to fix the attractiveness. You’ve got to get that support network.”

Keicher also advocated for teacher diversity.

“We need to make sure we’re showing kids in the classroom teachers that look like them, act like them and have had the same life experiences as them so they’re comfortable in the classroom,” he said.

Board president Jim Dombeck asked Keicher what can be done about the state legislature taking away decision rights from local school boards and enforcing more mandates.

“I am a firm believer that the administration, the board, parents and educators should be able to decide what is best for their students,” Keicher said. “When we allow for that local creativity, when we don’t put so many rules around it, we allow educators, administrators, parents, board members to flourish with creative solutions.”

Keicher said that he is optimistic about the future of the state.

“Illinois is worth fighting for,” he said. “It’s the best time to be alive in human history.”