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New Extension director offers hope for new direction after local funding dispute, personnel shakeup

A pumpkin patch in front of multiple rows of wind turbines
WGLT file photo
The University of Illinois Extension offers agriculture, consumer and environmental education.

Katie Buckley can remove the interim tag from her title as director of the University of Illinois Extension for Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.

Buckley was named acting county director of the office in November 2022, following the reassignment of its past leader in the wake of allegations of financial and staff-related mismanagement issues (which Extension officials said was unrelated to the reassignment). Earlier this year, Buckley’s title was upgraded to “interim.”

Regardless of the past rift, which played out over several months and culminated with the McLean County Board balking at a suggested tax levy of $300,000 for the three-county Extension office — instead approving $30,000 — Buckley said she is motivated to make an impact in the areas of community, economy, environment, food and health in the region.

“There is a need in all areas. I think my biggest focus is going to be on community. I want to make sure that communities know about what programs we have to offer, and what we can provide to make our communities stronger,” said Buckley, who started with Extension in August 2020 as a 4-H youth development educator after being employed with the LeRoy School District as a special education and, later, STEM teacher.

Woman smiling wearing black sweater over flower-patterned blouse.
Katie Buckley

Buckley said the scope and direction of Extension has expanded over the years, with a focus no longer primarily on agriculture. She wants to get the word out that Extension can benefit almost everyone in the three-county community.

“Agriculture still plays a large part. While we don’t have a commercial ag educator here on our staff, we do have a local foods-small farms educator, a nutrition and wellness (educator) which ties back into agriculture, and we have 4-H, which also plays a big role,” said Buckley, who was named 2019 Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year by the Illinois Farm Bureau while working for LeRoy. “(Extension is about) creating that workforce, not only for agriculture but for all of our communities.”

Extending an invitation to her table

Buckley is eager to put past disputes over where county funding is invested and personnel clashes in the rearview mirror during her time as Extension director.

“I think it’s just about being open and transparent. I’m not saying that we weren’t, but there are some preconceived notions and (I am) just trying to clear things up and communicate in working with all the county boards in all three counties,” she said. “If they have questions, or if anyone in the community has questions, all they have to do is ask; we have nothing to hide here. I’m always open for those kinds of conversations.”

With Extension funding coming from national, state and local governments, Buckley said it’s understandable that local public officials and citizens would have questions about the inflow and outflow of funds.

“I think I’ve worked very hard to make it clear that I am at the table and ready to work together. I’ll use the 4-H motto of ‘we’re better together,’ and if we can keep an open level of communication we’ll continue to move forward,” Buckley said, referring primarily to the McLean County Board, who she said had voted to cut the county’s share of Extension funding to a level not seen since the 1990s.

“We have some things we have to work on internally, as far as where we’re holding funds and how much we’re holding, and I think we’ve come to an agreement specifically with McLean and Woodford counties as to what we can have available to us if for some reason our funding model broke down. We’re working our way back; McLean County passed their budget and levy request (earlier this month) and I’m happy to hear we’re back to about 50% funding as of 2022’s funding model,” she added.

The Woodford County Board last week approved $140,000 for the extension for 2024. It’s current year funding was cut in half from 2022 levels (from $160,000 to $80,000).

New statewide Extension vision coming

The new director said she's also looking forward to a Dec. 5 Illinois Extension stakeholder town hall that will gather state, county and regional directors and others via Zoom to establish new Extension priorities and goals, along with a common vision for statewide engagement, service, partnership and impact.

“I’ve been giving feedback on where we need to go. I think we are definitely moving in the right direction … looking towards the future and just making some minor tweaks and changes. I think it’s really going to tighten up and clear up what Extension is and what they’re going to do in the future,” Buckley said.

Janice McCoy, Illinois Extension Region 2 assistant director, said Buckley has proven that she is the right person to move the tri-county Extension office forward with a new vision and proven track record.

“Buckley brings a strong background in K-12 education and has successfully directed the county offices through significant changes in the past year,” said McCoy, who personally addressed the McLean County Board last December to inform them of the reassignment of past director Bobbie Lewis-Sibley. “She has demonstrated strong leadership skills, is an empathetic listener, and is a results-driven problem solver.”

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.