The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 debate continues on budgetary spending
By Seth Hancock
To cut or increase expenditures in Fiscal Year 2017, that’s the question currently facing the Board of Education in School District U-46.
At its Nov. 16 meeting, the board heard from the administration that the district would be starting the staffing process for next school year in February, and staffing expenditures represent 75 to 80 percent of the budget.
For the first time in recent history, the district has decided to seek more input from the board much earlier on the budget, likely due to three of the four new board members (Phil Costello, Cody Holt and Jeanette Ward) voting no on the FY2016 budget (approved with a 4-3 vote), and on Dec. 14 three budget scenarios were presented for the FY2017 budget: No tax levy, no levy with 5 percent cuts and levy with $50 million in new debt.
The administration wants to continue the status quo of more spending, more taxes and more borrowing as U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said it was “painful… to think about” cutting expenditures, while the board is split.
Sanders has said that the district made about $25 million in cuts in 2009 as the economy took a downturn while Jeff King, chief Operations officer, said the district is operating with fewer staff since then. There is differing data among previous year’s U-46 budgets making it unclear if actual cuts in expenditures occurred.
“We are still operating at 322 employees less than we were in 2009,” King said. “If we were still at that level, we’d be spending roughly $21.5 million more.”
However, does that imply the district needs to be at that level from 2009, and did those stated cuts alleviate any pain for the taxpayers who suffered through the same economic downturn?
According to the district’s data given on Dec. 14, total staff was at its peak in 2009 at 4,593 and there were 2,582 teachers. Currently staff is at 4,271 with 2,421 teachers.
What was not presented was the district’s enrollment which was also at its peak at 40,449 in 2008-09 and 40,745 in 2009-10. Current enrollment is at 40,137, down 350 from last year, and King said it’s expected to “remain relatively flat” in response to a question from Costello on Nov. 16.
Before the economic downturn, U-46 was able to operate with even fewer staff than the current numbers at 4,118 and 2,290 teachers in 2006. Enrollment was 39,794 in 2006-07.
If any cuts were made in spending, the district appears to have more than made up for that in future years as the FY2009 expenditures were at $449.2 million and are projected at $507.6 million this year. If the federal government’s inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was used, this year’s expenditures should be at $496.9 million.
From information received from a 2014 Examiner Freedom of Information Act request, taxpayers have seen no cuts as property tax revenue has increased each year at an average of $6.4 million a year from $255.8 million in 2008-09 to $300.8 million in 2014-15. The current board approved 5-2, Holt and Ward voting no, a property tax increase expected at $305.7 million in revenue.
The district expects salaries to rise by 2.75 percent and benefits by 5 percent each year, and at no point previously have staff taken a pay cut in U-46 with only a base salary freeze back during the economic downturn. In contrast, a 2014 United States Conference of Mayors report shows that American jobs are paying 23 percent less now than before the 2008 recession with a job paying $61,637 before now being paid $47,171.
In the no levy with 5 percent cuts scenario, the administration said one of the assumptions it had to make in 2020 is that the district would have to bargain pay and benefits with its unions implying that no bargaining occurs when new contracts are negotiated.
Traci Ellis, reelected to her second term this past election, and Veronica Noland, in her third year of a four-year term, both said they’d like to see staffing standards reduced. King said reducing the elementary school standard would cost $1 million per student reduced.
Current student-teacher ratio standards range from 22-1 to 30-1, depending on grade level or program, at the elementary level. The district is currently below that, 21.6-1 at elementary school and 20.4-1 at high school as presented on Nov. 16, and it could be even lower if managed as enrollment at 40,137 and teachers at 2,421 equates to a 16.6-1 ratio.
For the board, the split is between those representing the taxpayers who pay the bills or those representing the unions, which did support Ellis and Sue Kerr in the last election.
Costello said on Nov. 16 that he has “a real problem increasing taxes or increasing debt,” and Ward said on Dec. 14 she “couldn’t support a budget that increases the tax levy.”
Sanders did not understand what increasing the tax levy meant and asked: “If you can be more specific are you saying you don’t ever want the dollars or local property taxes to go up or only up by the rate of inflation?”
“For next year’s budget I’m looking at flat, no increase at all,” said Ward who added she doesn’t think that has majority support, but “that’s what I’d like to see.”
Holt said he’s spoken with state legislators who, this year, fully funded K-12 education but gave no funding to higher education.
“I’m concerned they could take that out of the K-12, so I am concerned that could be a real possible situation where we actually have to tighten our fiscal belt in this budget,” Holt said.
Despite the district wanting to add more spending and programs, full-day kindergarten the largest, King claimed U-46 budgets “conservatively” specifically on categorical payments.
Holt later said he supports the current staffing standards but also said he hopes some of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s agenda is approved that will give more control to U-46 and allow more spending to go towards the classroom.
“I do realize that many of the costs that we have incurred for salaries are contractual,” Holt said. “I still have issues with the amount they go up per year.”
Ellis, who supported the more taxes and more debt scenario, was on the other side and said teachers should be paid based on experience rather than merit.
“I think that it’s a little bit misleading to look at our teacher salary line and make assumptions that somehow our teachers salaries need to be controlled,” Ellis said. “Our salary structure is based on seniority, and we have a lot of highly experienced teachers which is a great thing.”
Ellis added: “I want our teachers to hear another message as well that Traci O’Neal Ellis has no desire to be the low cost provider for teachers in front of our kids.”
Ellis also apparently had little concern for taxpayers saying “certainly you can find pockets anywhere who would just say ‘to hell with all-day kindergarten, to hell with middle school guidance councilors, raise the class sizes’” and she wants U-46 “to grow.”
Donna Smith, the board’s president, said she “would hate to see those increase at all” referring to staffing standards and Kerr said to see if “programs are worth the money we’re paying” they should all be evaluated.
Sanders said: “I know that there are programs that we have audited in the past, we just have not brought those results back forward to the board.”