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updated: 2/5/2010 12:52 AM

U-46 financial crisis has a distinct taste of déjà vu

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With every new story I read, and with every new piece of information that comes in, I can't help but have an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu.

Elgin Area School District U-46 is in dire financial straits again.

Yes, there are myriad school districts with financial concerns, and many of them are making cuts. But most of those cuts are a million here, 3 million there - a sign of the economic times.

But in U-46, financial gurus have told the district to cut $40 million. Now.

A Budget Advisory Task Force has been meeting for some time now to develop suggestions on how to trim the budget.

School finances are perplexing. You'd have to pay me Trump-like money to even sit down at a desk in a school district business office. I have never envied those people one bit. Preparing and following a budget isn't easy when you never know what's going to be deposited in the bank and the state gives you little guidance.

Do a Google search on Illinois school finances. Look at a couple of the links. You need a Ph.D. in Swahili to understand anything.

Cry as we might about the injustices of the school finance system, the fact is U-46 has a massive undertaking to cut cut cut and cut some more.

This feels so much like 2003 it's not even funny. Heck, even the $40 million figure was the same. Only the names in the U-46 central office have changed.

What also hasn't changed is that the district's athletic programs will take a hit, as they should. All programs suffer when cuts have to be made. Staff suffer, or lose their jobs. Kids suffer the loss of programs, both extracurricular as well as academic. The first round of pink slips has already gone out and they aren't even cut related. By March 15 many many more teachers and staff in U-46, the second largest school district in the state, are going to learn they don't have a job in the fall. Sad, yes. But fact, here and a lot of other places.

The task force has made many suggestions revolving around athletic programs. They range from dumping sports all together until the budget crisis is solved to more rational suggestions like raising participation fees, closing swimming pools, streamlining transportation, scheduling changes that reduce the use of facilities on weekends and, yes, cutting some lower level teams.

Between Feb. 9 and Feb. 16, forums will be held at each of the district's five high schools, allowing the community to weigh in on cut suggestions. U-46 Chief Financial Officer Ron Ally is then expected to make his recommendations to the board of education at its Feb. 22 meeting.

It's not possible today to put a dollar figure to what part of the athletic budget should be involved in the cuts. In 2003, each high school had its athletic budget cut by $45,000. And that was when there were four, not five high schools in the district. That may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of $40 million, but it's not chicken feed to budgets that are already bare bones.

Let's examine a couple of the suggestions on the table. The complete 44 pages of task force cut suggestions can be found on the district's Web site, www.u-46.org.

Cutting sports all together: Well, you're reading the sports page so it's obvious we won't be advocating that drastic a measure. Yes, it was on the table in 2003 as well, and we did stories about the adverse affect shutting down athletics had on other districts that had done so, most notably Rockford, the third largest school district in the state which, by the way, is facing a $30 million cut right now that its CFO told the Rockford Register-Star can't be done in one year.

Cutting sports entirely is not the answer. We don't advocate cutting any extracurricular programs but we understand that, inevitably, some lower level or middle school programs will face the ax. We could use more space to remind Ally and the task force about all the values of athletics in the totality of the educational experience but we trust the people running the district understand that as well.

Participation fees: They must be raised again. In 2003, fees were raised from $25 per sport to $65. It's time now to go to $100, or even $150, with a family cap. While we understand many families may struggle to pay a higher fee and that in itself could affect participation numbers, it's a needed and necessary move.

Closing swimming pools: Good idea, bad idea. The district tried eliminating swimming programs in 2003 and that community rallied and funded the programs themselves for a year. Closing pools down entirely is a new idea and while there may be some savings involved, we wouldn't advocate closing all five pools. Find the one or two that are in the best shape, co-op the district's teams more than they are now if needed, but keep the programs alive.

Transportation: Much is already being done with combining teams on busses and that will need to continue. Shorter nonconference trips can be arranged and, remember, this fall Geneva and Batavia join the Upstate Eight Conference and those will be shorter trips for some U-46 schools. Taking smaller busses with smaller teams can help as well. I always shake my head when I leave a game and see 10 kids going home with their parents and two kids and a coach getting on a 50-passenger bus.

Scheduling changes: Again, some of these measures have already been enacted as the district has expressed its desire to shut down buildings earlier and earlier on weekends. As the winter season draws to a close, measures should be taken to lock the light switch box at Memorial Field and Millennium Stadium for the spring. Don't even think about turning the lights on for a soccer game, and let someone else host postseason track meets. Just as basketball teams have had to play 1 p.m. games on Saturdays to cut costs, spring teams should also be limited on using extra resources to play their games.

I'm going to throw one other one out there that might not be too popular with people I share a scorer's table with, but it's time for the district to cut back on what it pays out for employees to work athletic events. Get a student to do the announcing and train capable students to run the clock and keep the book. It worked back in the day and there's no reason it can't now. If the staff members still want to be involved, let it be on a volunteer basis.

I realize that some of these changes would need to be approved by the Elgin Teachers Association union, but we're at a point where every penny counts, aren't we? Should the ETA not be willing to follow what many other unions have done across the country and make some concessions?

And while we can all dissect the district's spending habits, and the Connie Neale debacle, and the state's less than adequate system of funding schools, and all of the other factors that go into why U-46 is at the point it is, there are a couple simple facts: 1) We have no clue right now how this is all going to end up, and 2) it ain't gonna be pretty.

Stay tuned. This is a story that is just beginning.

jradtke@dailyherald.com

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