The Examiner U-46 News Feed
District U-46 board approves 2019 budget
By Seth Hancock
By a split vote, the Board of Education in School District U-46 approved the Fiscal Year 2019 budget at its meeting on Monday, Sept. 24.
The vote was 4-2, board members Phil Costello and Jeanette Ward voting no. Board member John Devereux was absent.
The budget hikes spending by $40.2 million (7.8 percent, to $558.1 million from $517.9 million) and revenues by $52 million (10.2 percent at $561.1 million from $509.1 million).
Salaries and benefits make up the largest expenditure item at $389.3 million, up $21.9 million (6 percent) from $367.4 million. Property taxes make up the largest portion of the revenue side at $303.8 million, up from $303.4 million (0.1 percent) while U-46 plans to use an abatement for the fourth straight year.
The largest revenue increase comes from the state’s so-called “evidence based funding” as U-46 expects $174.5 million, up from $120.7 million (44.6 percent) last year.
Both Costello and Ward offered some praise for the budget, Costello calling it “comprehensive and transparent” helping it receive a meritorious budget award, but they see fundamental problems with the budget.
Ward said the budget was “prepared well” based on the board’s direction, but she’s “in disagreement with the majority of the board.” She said, “We should be paying down the debt and reducing property taxes.”
The budget adds 54 new positions despite a projected 1.9 percent decline in enrollment this year, a trend over the last three years, and Ward said she doesn’t support “expanding operations while enrollment is declining as our projections and past data indicate.”
Using the budget and Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) data, enrollment will drop 13.1 percent from 2012 to the 2021-22 school year but the district plans to spend more each year with a planned 36.3 percent increase in spending over that time.
Ward noted the problems at the state level, which could end up pushing pension costs to local school districts, as the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget admits to at least a $1.2 billion dollar deficit in the state’s budget. Illinois has $129 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.
Illinois’s current debt is $148.9 billion according to usdebtclock.org and the state is ranked 49th, a drop from 47th last year, in George Mason University’s Mercatus Center’s annual rankings of states on fiscal health.
“This imbalance at the state level cannot continue forever,” Ward said. “Eventually there will be stark consequences.”
Costello said his opposition stems from “mostly external factors including uncertainty of an overreliance on an unbalanced state budget that may turn into a forced transfer of tax burden to local school districts, past and future decline in student census without a corresponding drop in the budget, anticipated current and projected increases in contractual salaries and benefits over fiscal 2019, 2020, 2021 that are almost 70 percent of the budget projected to grow by 3 to 5 percent respectively without a sustainable source of increased revenues and most importantly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, lack of support from the general population that have addressed me specifically.”
Board member Sue Kerr said she’s been bothered by U-46 finances in the past, but more spending is needed to improve student outcomes.
“I know that having additional staff is controversial, but in the last 10 years we had a huge increase in class size which we still have really not addressed,” Kerr said.
According to ISBE data, the class size has been between 20 and 23 students per teacher since 2008. Last year, it was at 21.
Kerr said: “Our kids still aren’t doing that well. We need to do better, and it’s probably going to cost us some money to get to that point. Now money doesn’t answer everything, but when we talk about the taxpayers one of the things Illinois is going to be doing next year is grading our schools…. I don’t think our community will be very happy if they live in a district with a majority of schools being graded with a C, D and F.”
The ISBE’s available data shows that spending per student has increased by $2,434 since 2012 but academic results over most categories have declined including a 15-point drop in freshmen on track to graduate (96 to 81 percent), 13-point drop in student on target or advanced on the Dynamic Learning Maps (24 to 11 percent) and a 5-point drop in students meeting or exceeding standards on the PARCC test (33 to 28 percent).
Board member Melissa Owens called Ward’s statement a “sound bite” and said that nobody thinks it’s “a bad idea” to add staff because other districts have staff. The additional staff includes counselors at middle schools, assistant principals, behavior specialists and instructional coaches which Owens said are “positions that are desperately needed.”
“To say that we are going to not approve a budget because numbers, we’re expanding operations and we have declining enrollment, that’s not the case,” Owens said.
Owens said the enrollment declines amount to “two to three children per grade, per school” and “anybody who has even a rudimentary grasp on accounting and overhead knows that you do not change your overhead by losing two children.”
Costello later said: “You do need to be cognizant of overhead. It’s not just something that goes away just because it’s always that platform that’s there. I think most accountants would agree that overhead over time is something that you can manage and should manage.”
Owens conceded that if the enrollment projections continue staff may need to be cut, but she wants to kick the can down the road.
Ward asked: “Illinois has the highest property taxes in the nation and how much money is enough, like where’s the end?”
Owens said “I feel that pain” regarding property taxes, but “these are the kinds of things that we were going to use the evidenced based funding that we received from the state.”
“I predict that property taxes will not go down,” Ward responded. “They will continue to increase because that is what they’ve always done.”
Owens said this was the first time she’s heard the conversation on reducing property taxes and “I’ve not sat in one finance committee where we’ve talked about how exactly are we going to reduce our property taxes.” She would also imply that Costello and Ward want to shut down schools by seeking a responsible budget.
Ward raised the same issues, including a desire to reduce property taxes, at the Sept. 10 and Aug. 20 meetings and she and Costello have raised the same issues since being seated in 2015. The board’s majority have consistently ignored their concerns.
“Then the majority of the board would need to be in agreement with that,” Ward said. “I’ve already said that the budget was prepared with agreement from the majority of the board.”
Owens replied: “But the majority of the board hasn’t sat in the last year and said ‘we’re going to raise property taxes.’”
“It kind of has,” Ward said.
“We’ve got a state that is not reliable and has promised things,” Costello said. “Hopefully they deliver, but we need to be cognizant of the fact that they might stumble and where does that leave us if we’ve committed to the spending of those dollars that may or may not be there.”
Costello added: “The fundamental things that I’m looking at don’t make that much sense, so I have to take the position of speaking for the taxpayers and the residents that talk to me and I’m taking that role…. I feel that my voice and representation are just as important on the issues that my convictions represent.”