A 90 minute discussion by Elmhurst District 205 School Board members Tuesday night did not lead to any magic bullet or previously unrevealed secret that would fix the district's budget without painful cuts. On the contrary, it set those cuts in motion.
It's the third consecutive year the district has had to trim the budget. Last year, the district used the Elmhurst Educational Program Review Technique, or EEPRT, to . EEPRT data collected in 2011 was one of the criteria board members used this year when evaluating areas to cut.
While the amount to be cut for 2012-13 is less than last year, about $1.2 million, the cuts are hitting some vital areas.
"If there was anything frivolous, it was cut a long time ago," Superintendent David Pruneau said. "All these positions and programs are critical to our success. (But) we don't have an alternative. Expenditures and revenues are not matching up."
The roadmap for Tuesday's discussion was the recommended "yellow" list of cuts Pruneau and his administrative staff . Items on a white list of alternate cuts also have been bandied about, but the white list proposes eliminating middle school sports, elementary Spanish and elementary instrumental music. Cuts such as these would fundamentally change the district by cutting into "the very things that affect the richness of our community," board member Chris Blum said.
More on the white list later.
The board generally agreed with staff recommendations on the yellow list:
- utilizing targets as opposed to hard caps for class sizes in grades kindergarten through eight. Savings: $240,000 to $480,000
- increasing staffing ratio at York. Savings: $300,000 to $360,000
- eliminating a certified librarian at York (currently, there are two). Savings: $60,000
- reducing library assistants, assistant coaches, secretarial and other support staff at York. Savings: $140,600
- eliminating one maintenance position. Savings: $55,000
- rearranging unified arts and gym at Churchville (reduction of up to two full-time employees). Savings: $60,000 to $120,000
- reducing by .6 FTE a guidance counselor at Sandburg. Savings: $36,000
- eliminating middle school library assistants (reduction of 3 FTE). Savings: $90,000
- reducing elementary music from twice a week (60 minutes total) to once a week (45 minutes), a reduction of 1.4 FTE. Savings: $84,000
- eliminating middle school transitional Spanish (reduction of .5 to 1 FTE). Savings: $30,000 to $60,000
- reducing stipends for middle school student council. Savings: $8,140 to $16,280
- reducing technology budget (hardware and software). Savings: $120,000
- reduce technology budget (telecom and Internet). Savings $78,000
Total reductions: $1.3 million to $1.7 million
Pruneau said it's important to cut all the way to the $1.7 million mark because cuts on paper don't always translate into the same dollar amount in actuality.
"If you cut this too close and the numbers don't go your way, we may be back here in August," he said. If the cuts end up being more than $1.2 million, items will be added back into the budget.
"We're not going to cut $1.7 million if we don't need it," he said.
Class Size Increases 'Not Tolerated Well'
Board members debated some concepts, like whether physical education was more important than academics, and how increasing class sizes will affect students.
"I just don't want to lose the quality of our elementary education because we've overloaded classes," board member Jim Collins said.
Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Brad Hillman said having targets rather than hard caps for class sizes will allow for adjustments based on needs at individual schools.
"It is not our intent to have class sizes at the elementary level into the 30s," he said. "We will factor in as many people who know about our students as possible to make informed decisions."
Board member Maria Hirsch reminded the board that the district has made a significant investment over the years in block scheduling and placing more ELL and REACH teachers in the elementary schools. So while class sizes have creeped up, these methods already have augmented classrooms and teachers, Hirsch said.
"I get a lot of positive feedback about that model from teachers," Pruneau added.
Shannon Ebner said EEPRT showed that the community ranks smaller class size as very important, and she's heard complaints from parents about how class sizes have creeped up over the years.
"It doesn't seem the community tolerates that very well," she said, adding that previous increases have all happened at the elementary level, not at the high school.
"I just want it to be equitable across the board, not targeted at a certain age," she said.
At York, class sizes are more difficult to determine. Everything is based on student-to-teacher ratios, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Charles Johns said.
"High school scheduling is very complicated," he said.
Whether electives will be offered or eliminated is driven by student interest. If only a few students sign up for an elective, that class will be canceled, or perhaps several grade levels of students will be taught the class all together.
Board member Karen Stuefen asked why the district is offering new electives during a time of budget cuts.
"Do we really need to do that?" she asked.
Adding new courses keeps the curriculum fresh and increases student engagement, Johns said.
"What holds it all in check are those ratios," he said.
It's Not Over
Hirsch also thanked Technology Director David Smith for cutting another $200,000 this year, on top of the $500,000 cuts in technology in each of the last two years.
Smith said the level of funding after the cuts will be enough to maintain the current equipment and systems, but not add anything new.
But even after this round of cuts, the district's own projections say the board will have to go through the same process again next year, board member Chris Blum said.
"This conversation is going to continue," he said. "Next year, the stuff on the white list will be on the table. I think we should be having that discussion now. I want to engage the community in that discussion now."
Hirsch pointed out that labor costs—salaries and benefits—are the biggest chunk of the district's budget, and they have accelerated at a much faster rate than the consumer price index, which is used to determine tax increases. Other concerns are related to state funding. There's talk that Illinois soon will no longer provide funds for transportation, for example, and local districts may soon have to foot the bill for pension payments.
Blum said he's not interested in the reasons.
"I don't care why it happened. We are going to be in the hole next year according to our own projections," he said. "We have a runway. We see this coming. Let's start a discussion."
Pruneau said any discussion with the community about budget cuts must start with educating constituents on how a budget is developed.
"It's a complicated process," he said.
Board President Susan DeRonne asked staff to look into the best way to begin these conversations with the public. Meanwhile, Pruneau and his staff will start implementing the cuts this week. A list of all certified staff to be laid off must be presented by April 10.
He reiterated that the number of staff cuts represent a "worst-case scenario," and that he was hopeful some of the staff that is let go can be recalled once more detailed budget numbers are known this summer.
"We're hoping we can do some things to bring these positions back," he said.
He also thanked the board and his cabinet.
"I know we're looked at sometimes like the bad guys, but I want the public to know that my cabinet spent hours and hours agonizing over these cuts. I can tell you there were a lot of sleepless nights."