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The Examiner U-46 News Feed

U-46 begins 'painful' process for new budget

By Seth Hancock
  School District U-46 has started the process of developing the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, and the Board of Education has been presented with the process including three separate budget scenarios on Monday, Dec. 14.
  However, from the start the administration, as well as some members of the board, have shown a lack of willingness for change when a budget development presentation was given on Nov. 16.
  Jeff King, chief Operations officer, presented data showing the district currently spends $6,095 instructionally and $10,672 operationally per student and has a 21.6 student to teacher ratio at the elementary level and 20.4 at the high school level.
  “We thought now would be a good time to start those conversations as to what the board would like to see for next year,” said King who added that 75 to 80 percent of the budget is set in the spring as staffing decisions start in February.
  U-46 has a 257.4 student to administrator (which includes school principals, associate and assistant principals and divisional) ratio, 62.2 percent low-income students and 26.5 percent Limited English Proficiency students according to the presentation. King said 64 percent of expenditures go towards salaries, and 53 percent of benefit expenditures goes toward health insurance.
  On the five-year projections, revenues are expected to increase year-to-year to $520.5 million in 2020. Expenditures are expected to drop to $497.1 in 2017 but go on the rise to $520.1 million in 2020. Those numbers include an assumption of full-day kindergarten being implemented.
  When the discussion came to full swing among the board, Jeanette Ward said she would only support a budget with a flat levy and Cody Holt asked for multiple budget scenarios.
  That prompted U-46 CEO Tony Sanders to start dissuading the board from even thinking about cuts who said that the district hasn’t “really been investing a lot in new people” and “your opportunities are to increase class sizes, which I would not recommend going above where we are currently.”
  “To be honest I struggle,” Sanders said. “In order to truly impact the budget to lower it you’d have to start looking at some of our specialized marquee programs… but really that’s the only way we could reduce the budget in terms of people.”
  Holt responded: “I think it’s a matter of effective budgeting to have some different scenarios. I’m not too sure, quite frankly, what those scenarios are right now, but I think if we had some options… maybe we can come together collectively as a board to maybe identify some of those scenarios.”
  Phil Costello agreed with Holt and said the district should think outside of the box and that he understands that it’s painful to consider cuts, but it’s something that has to be considered.
  “If we increase payroll, what are we going to have to cut because we can’t just increase payroll because it’s the right thing to do,” Costello said. “We’re going to have to cut something.”
  Costello added that “we need to know where we start chipping away at bone and where other things happen” as well as “where the really difficult situations are and what the options are.”
  Sue Kerr said that when she was on the Citizens’ Advisory Council, the group saw that the district added programs, including in extracurricular and transportation, but rarely cut back. She said a long-term discussion should be had with the public.
  “We tend to add and not take away,” Kerr said. “And what we really need to look at is what we have, how effective it is, what it costs us, how many kids it touches…”
  Traci Ellis agreed that scenarios should be given.
  “What we’ve given you so far is something vague, ‘just let us see some scenarios without direction to you,’” Ellis said. “So, since we should not be in the business of telling you which programs to cut, why don’t you model… five, 10, 15 percent expense reductions.”
  Ellis later said: “The issue I think people have to see is how utterly painful and unacceptable those types of cuts would be. And the only way you’re going to get to that is to show it.”
  Costello responded: “To balance that, the fact is that if we’re not going to cut then we have to increase it. Are we talking about debt, are we talking about more taxes? Yes, it’s going to be very painful, but the fact is I have a real problem increasing taxes or increasing debt.”
  Costello added: “We have to know, if we’re not going to (cut) what’s the answer. It’s not just to say, ‘well, we have to forge ahead.’”
  Sanders said he didn’t “want to make the assumption that we’re going to have to cut a lot because we are actually in a much better financial position now then we’ve been in my nine years in U-46.” He said there was a $40 million deficit which is now an $87 million surplus.
  He said the district “cut 10 percent of the budget” in 2009 leading to massive layoffs that have not yet fully been regained. However it is unclear if actual cuts occurred based on the budget data available at u-46.org as the FY2015 and FY2016 budgets show a cut in expenditures from FY2009 to FY2010, but the previous budgets show an increase from $449.2 million to $474.4 million from 2009 to 2010.
  During the presentation, staffing standards were presented which Veronica Noland said “we have a really high staffing level.”
  “I still don’t think our staffing levels are acceptable,” Noland said. “We had to go there, but do we have to stay there?” 
  Although lowering the student to teacher ratio has been a common belief, it may not mean much according to a 2013 study by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Jr. titled “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City.”
  From the study: “We find that traditionally collected input measures–class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree–are not correlated with school effectiveness.”
  The board was presented with three scenarios (no levy, no levy plus five percent cuts, levy with bonds) at the Dec. 14 meeting. At the Nov. 16 meeting, Sanders asked that the board consider increasing property taxes by the maximum allowed under the Consumer Price Index to see “how it would look like to capture that increase.”
  The five-year projections, including increased spending and revenue, was presented even with enrollment expected to “remain relatively flat” according to King who was questioned on that by Costello. According the district’s enrollment presented on Nov. 2, the total number of students dropped by 350 from 2014 to 2015.
  Some of the district’s union contract negotiations will start up soon, and King said during the presentation 2.75 percent salary and 5 percent benefit increases each year based on current contracts and an average of recent years.



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