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U-46 budget plan seems set to hike taxes, debt
By Seth Hancock
It appears that School District U-46 will continue the status quo on budgeting with more spending as well as higher taxes and debt, as the Board of Education was presented with three budget scenarios for Fiscal Year 2017 on Monday, Dec. 14.
The three budget scenarios included one with no tax levy, one with no levy and 5 percent cuts and one with a levy as well as $50 million in new debt as a low interest bond was presented on the same evening. The board was presented with five years of projected revenue and expenditures on each scenario, and each included the district’s plan to implement full-day kindergarten district-wide.
As previously reported by The Examiner, the administration showed an unwillingness to change as CEO Tony Sanders attempted to dissuade the board from looking at a budget that included cuts when the conversation started on Nov. 16.
When the scenarios were presented, the administration took sides starting with Jeff King, chief Operations officer, calling the scenario with cuts “draconian.”
“I just want the public to know that we put these scenarios together based on the request of the board to show one where we cut, one where we’re fairly status quo and one where we might actually have a bright, shiny future,” Sanders said.
Sanders referred to the no levy budget as the “status quo,” but the district has consistently asked for the maximum tax levy allowed each year and only a year ago added $40 million in new debt.
“It is my desire to keep this district moving forward with a thoughtful review of our programs to make sure we are efficient for the taxpayer but also realizing that there is a value that we offer to the public through the programs and the services we offer,” Sanders said.
That value, in terms of academic achievement, is only 32 percent of students in U-46 meeting or exceeding expectations on the recent report card from the Illinois State Board of Education.
On the no levy scenario, revenue would increase each year from $495.3 million in FY2016 to $520.5 million in FY2020 which would be the same for the no levy with cuts scenario. The levy with bond scenario would increase revenues to $538.9 million in 2020.
Expenditures would rise from $507.6 million to $542.6 million in FY2020 under the no levy scenario and $544.7 million under the levy with bond scenario. The no levy with cuts would see a decrease to $482.9 million in FY2017 and expenditures would be at $485.5 million by 2020.
The cuts in 2017 would include capital projects, technology, eliminating transportation for high school students attending academies at different schools then their home school, closing two elementary schools and no pay raises for administrators.
King said “additional cuts would have to come into play because salary (by 2.75 percent) and benefits (by 5 percent) would continue to increase” each year which would lead to some staff cuts, freezing non-union pay, eliminating middle school athletics and reducing high school athletics to four offerings per gender and bargaining pay and benefits with union employees according to the administration’s plan.
For Sanders, the simple thought of cuts was painful.
“I think it was done in a thoughtful way, but also being involved in pieces that I know how painful it was to think about additional 5 percent cuts,” Sanders said. “We’ve just come through a period in time where we cut approximately $25 million in one year in 2009.”
However, it is unclear if actual cuts occurred in 2009 based on budgets available on the district’s website. The current budget as well as FY2015 show expenditures dropping from $449.2 in 2009 to $427.5 in 2010, but all previous budgets show an increase to $474.4 million in 2010.
These scenarios came after a split 4-3 vote on the current budget as three of the four newest board members voted against it: Phil Costello, Cody Holt and Jeanette Ward. There’s a split as well on how much input the board should have as some of the new members offered different ideas than the cuts the administration suggested, while Traci Ellis, in her second term, said the board should leave budget decisions up to the administration.
Ward noted that in FY2017 the district would cut about $22 million in the no levy with cuts scenario. The full-day kindergarten proposal has a $14.5 million initial price tag plus an additional $4.8 million in added salary and benefit costs for new teachers for $19.3 million in 2017.
The $22 million reduction “could almost be taken up if we didn’t implement full-day kindergarten,” Ward said.
“Well, we would still need to address the overcrowding that’s taking place in the Elgin area,” King said. “We don’t have the classroom space in the region. Unfortunately, the classroom space is in the southeast.”
Full-day kindergarten would lead to additions being built on three schools, and King suggested those still being built or adding mobiles even without implementation.
However, Ward previously made a suggestion that could alleviate overcrowding. During the boundary change discussion, Ward suggested allowing parents from overcrowded schools to send their kids to under-utilized schools if they provide their own transportation, but King dismissed that as not “an option” simply because he wasn’t “tasked with discussing” it.
Ellis, on the other hand, feels the district’s finance team should be the only source deciding how tax dollars are spent.
“I don’t think we collect these dollars to sit up here as the…sage on the stage and determine just among seven people how we’re going to spend the money from the families that represent 40,000 students plus the larger community whether you have students in the district or not,” Ellis said.
Ellis said she’s in “anything but a withdrawal or contraction mode” as she supported the scenario of increasing taxes and adding debt and said lowering class sizes and adding programs is “the directions that we need to be pursuing.”
“I know that was a lot of extra work you had to go through to prove this point, but it proves what I thought would be the case that withdrawals with investments to tow the line is detrimental,” Ellis said. “These are egregious, and more importantly it’s not what the community wants.”
Sue Kerr, who’s new to the board and ran on a ticket with Ellis, suggested a scenario with the levy but no added debt and a potential two-year property tax freeze that could come from the state.
“What strikes me is, most of these fiscal years come out pretty balanced without the bond even with those capital expenditures,” Kerr said.
Holt asked about how the administration came up with their suggestions to what to cut in the no levy with cuts scenario and King said it was what they felt the district could “live without.” Ward, who said she couldn’t support a budget that assumes a levy increase, noted that in the no levy scenario the district did not attempt to make any cuts.