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District U-46 introduces ‘pretty much flat’ budget

By Seth Hancock
  As citizens face mounting economic pressures due to the government’s impact on the economy under Gov. J.B. Pritzker over COVID-19, School District U-46 is patting itself on the back for proposing a “pretty much flat” budget for Fiscal Year 2021 which increases spending by $6.2 million.
  The budget was presented at the Board of Education meeting on Monday, Aug. 17 which was held electronically. A public hearing is set for Sept. 14 and a vote scheduled for Sept. 28.
  Expenditures are proposed to rise from $594.3 million to $599.5 million as the district projects a sixth straight year of enrollment declines, and revenue is set to rise from $596 million to $602.4 million.
  On the expenditure side, salaries are set to rise from $303.1 million to $313.7 million and benefits from $100.6 million to $106.4 million. Other expenditures ($61 million), supplies and materials ($43.2 million), purchased services ($42.8 million), capital outlay ($26.2 million) and non-capital equipment ($6 million) make up the other spending lines.
  The district again plans to seek the largest property tax increase allowed under the law with revenue proposed to rise from $306.9 million to $319.1 million, a 4 percent increase. So-called “evidence-based funding” (EBF) from the state is set at $197 million, federal aid at $44.4 million, categorical payments from the state at $22.1 million and other local revenue at $19.9 million.
  Dale Burnidge, director of financial operations, called it “pretty much flat with the previous year” because of a new government accounting standard requiring student activity fund accounts to be put in the budget. That equates to $5.3 million in revenue and expenditures.
  “These are the accounts at the schools…. These aren’t new revenues or expenditures. This is just the first time that we had to include them on our district budget,” Burnidge said.
  Property taxes can rise based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) plus new construction and the levy is determined in December. CPI has hovered between 1.9 percent and 2.3 percent between 2016 and 2019, but the district projects 1 percent this year but believes it will return to 2 percent in 2021 and 2022.
  The district has seen a $2 million annual increase in property tax revenue between 2017 and 2020 but is planning to seek an average of $8 million additionally each year between 2020 and 2024 as the country faces recession or depression. It expects to receive $319 million this year from $307 million while rising to $339 million by 2024.
  EBF is expected to be flat from last year’s $197 million and the district plans for three categorical payments. EBF has jumped from $120 million in 2017 to $197 million in 2020.
  U-46 expects federal revenue to increase including $2.5 million from the CARES Act and nutrition funds rising from $12 million to $15 million “because we’ve been able to serve meals over the summer,” according to Burnidge.
  Salary and benefits are set to rise, including a 5 percent increase for health insurance, by $16 million from $404 million to $420 million for a 4 percent increase. No new staff are planned to be added.
  In 2017, salary and benefits were at $358 million. That rose to $362 million (1.1 percent) in 2018, $378 million (4.4 percent) in 2019 and $404 million (6.9 percent) in 2020.
  On debt management, U-46 showed a principal reduction of $117 million from a 2015 bond.
  The district projects a loss of 483 students with enrollment falling from 37,886 students to 37,403. The district projects enrollment to drop to 35,252 by 2023-2024 but still plans to continue increasing spending to $624 million.
  Board members offered nothing but praise for the budget including John Devereux who said “it feels like good stewardship.”
  “I appreciate the efforts… in the sort of uncertain times to, you know, take the care and the caution in preparing a budget that sort of reflects the economic uncertainty, keeping expenditures roughly flat,” Devereux said.
  Sue Kerr, the board’s president, did ask about total CARES Act funds. Burnidge said U-46 received $7.8 million with the remaining being spent in the FY2020 budget.
  Board member Melissa Owens agreed with Devereux and said the “state is facing its own financial crises” and “there’s a lot of anxiety,” but she “appreciate(s) the work that the finance team has done to put this together.”
  Superintendent Tony Sanders said “the board has been excellent financial stewards” in recent years with use of a property tax abatement, which the district plans to use again this year. The abatement is a property tax scheme that kicks the can down the road forcing future property owners to pay the brunt of tax increases.
  The “financial stewardship” in recent years has shown large spending increases and increases in staff despite enrollment declines.
  Total staff has increased from 4,242 to 4,954 between 2016 and 2020 while enrollment has dropped by over 3,000 students since its highs. From FY2012 to FY2019, enrollment dropped 5.6 percent and spending increased by 29.8 percent ($128.1 million).




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