Creative thinking needed for school finances

Rhonda Silence starnews@boreal.org unorganizedterritory.me

Hats off to the ISD 166 School Board members for their decision to not accept any pay for the coming year. Their unanimous motion was made after only the slightest discussion. The board agreed that it needed to set an example as it moved ahead with the unpleasant task of cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the school’s budget.

The sacrifice is admirable, but I do agree with a friend who believes the school board is setting an unsettling precedent. What if future boards feel compelled to do the same? Will the school district be able to attract candidates to serve on the board?

The school board compensation is not that much. In fact, in light of the approximately $700,000 in budget reductions that must be made $2,300 per year is a drop in the bucket. Even that amount times five board members—$11,000— doesn’t equal a living wage. All of the school board members have other jobs or source of income. No one is going to get rich serving on the school board.

However, it is enough to use to go out to dinner with the family before a grueling meeting. It’s enough to splurge on a new outfit to wear to a school board conference. It’s enough to tuck away and splurge on friends or family on birthdays and holidays. It could be enough to pay someone to come clean house now and then when things are hectic.

I hope that the school district can somehow get the budget in check so it can once again receive a stipend for its services. In fact, instead of reducing their pay to zero, the board should be getting an increase for facing the wrath of parents, teachers, alumni and community members in the coming months.

The financial discussions ahead will not be pretty. Included in the board packet for the next school board meeting is a list of items that could be reduced or eliminated to bring the school’s finances in line. Cuts need to be made and unfortunately those cuts are not just numbers on a spreadsheet. People are impacted by budget cuts—children, parents, school employees, the community.

If a custodian’s hours are reduced, not only will the school building not be as clean, the custodian suffers because he or she sees a corresponding reduction in pay. If maintenance is put off, little problems get bigger and eventually could cost the school district more. And school pride suffers as well.

If classrooms are combined and a teacher has more students than she has had in the past, she will struggle to keep everyone on task. She has less time to spend with the children who may need extra help, so they suffer. If curriculum replacement cycles are stretched over longer periods of time, text books fall apart and software becomes obsolete.

There are many ways the budget could be cut, but there are none that won’t impact the children at ISD 166. I wish the school board well as they tackle this chore.

I do have a bit of advice as the financial discussions continue. I’ve already heard the idea of seeking another school operating levy referendum. I would support that. I was among the folks who voted yes the last time around. Although I don’t always agree with school spending decisions, I knew that things would only get worse for our kids if the levy failed. Battles over who gets cut out of the budget can in no way help our school. I had an idea what the school district would be facing when the current levy expired—just what they are facing now.

So if the idea of going out for another school levy referendum gains momentum, I encourage the board to carefully consider what they really need and what the community will accept. During the last levy referendum process, I heard time and again from community members that they would support continuing the operating levy at the same level or with a minimal increase. An increase of $437.09 to $1,276 per pupil for a total levy increase of approximately $612,480 was just not acceptable to many. Had a levy referendum asked for a continuation of the existing levy, it might have passed and the board would not be in such a financial crunch now.

However, I heard from many others who felt the levy increase was acceptable. Some people believed that increased costs of wages, insurance, utilities, technology, maintenance and more warranted a larger operating levy. There were many people writing letters to the editor in support of the levy increase and many who sported “Funding our Future” buttons.

I encourage those people to help the school board—and staff and students—out a bit. Use the handy calculator that the levy referendum committee provided in the lead up to the vote to see what you would have seen as an increase on your tax statement. Then sit down and write a check to ISD 166 for that amount and drop it in the mail. It’s tax-deductible!

And, as Deb White challenged the community—graduates of the Blandin Foundation Community Leadership Program in particular— let’s get creative. Let’s figure out a way to fund our schools properly. Maybe we have to be more aggressive lobbying at the Capitol for fair funding distribution to rural schools. Maybe we need to work to create an endowment for Cook County Schools. Who knows what we could do if we all work together for our kids?

Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of reading spreadsheets and red-lining programs the district can’t afford, the school board could spend its meetings talking about curriculum and learning styles and student success? And wouldn’t it be nice if they were getting paid?

The object of education is to
prepare the young to educate
themselves throughout their lives.
Robert M. Hutchins

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