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posted: 4/19/2010 12:01 AM

St. Charles schools chief readies for busy summer of budget shuffling

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  • St. Charles District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann: "If 20,000 employees of Caterpillar down in Peoria were being let go, the legislature would be up in arms."

    St. Charles District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann: "If 20,000 employees of Caterpillar down in Peoria were being let go, the legislature would be up in arms."


St. Charles Unit District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann is bracing for a long summer of getting his priorities in order.

The latest news from Springfield predicts a May 9 adjournment for the Illinois General Assembly. That early date signals to Schlomann that school districts across the state won't know how much less they'll receive in state money until just before school resumes.

The only thing Schlomann said he feels he knows for sure is that it will be less state money than the district currently receives.

"Even if we restore school funding, even at a flat level, you still have increased expenses," Schlomann said. "So you are still losing money. Nobody is planning on state funding being at the same amount of money that we got this year. I think that would be the head-in-the-sand theory of hoping it will all go away."

The best-case scenario, Schlomann said, is a $2 million cut. District 303 is already preparing with how to deal with that by prioritizing a list of about $4 million in potential budget cuts. That's in addition to the $5 million worth of slashing the school board approved in January, which included the loss of several teachers.

Trying to shave $4 million likely means not buying eight slightly used school buses to retire some of the current fleet. Not buying new text books is near the bottom of the list of options. Everything else, including reducing substitute teachers' pay, is somewhere in the middle.

Trimming teachers in January was not a popular move. It could become even less popular now that administrators developed a list of $4 million in additional cuts that don't involve cutting more teachers. But Schlomann said it was the right move to make with state budget problems looming.

"What we could've done was make $8 million in reductions in January," Schlomann said. "That's what most districts did."

Not making cuts in January would've delayed the inevitable at a time when part of the district's deficit for the next year was known. No one wanted to leave the teachers fretting over job security unnecessarily.

"We didn't want to play games with people's lives and programs," Schlomann said.

About 82 percent of the district's $150 million budget is payroll, which leaves about $27 million from which to cut when trying to avoid a staff reduction. Schlomann said the reality is, without more money, it's only a matter of time before more teachers are cut.

"We can't not ever buy new buses," Schlomann said. "We're already taking $4 million out of that $27 million (with the pending second round of cuts). Ultimately, it comes down to how many people you employ, or how much you pay them."

The balance between staffing, salaries and the 18 percent of the budget that doesn't comprise payroll gets even more tenuous when Schlomann looks into his crystal ball and sees a worst-case scenario of losing $5 million in state funds, or about $1 million more than the district is preparing for.

Legally, it's already too late for the district to cut more teachers to make up that additional $1 million. That means cutting even deeper into the 18 percent of the budget that isn't salaries or using more of the district's savings.

If the district's revenues continue to decline after that, the only option left will be to cut more staff. Schlomann knows administrators would be at the top of the target list because they are thought of as the highest-paid employees.

District residents already griped about the number of administrators during the Summit 303 process. Soon after, the district trimmed 16 of 74 administrators. The move put the district below the state average for the number of students per administrator.

That's one reason the school board recently decided it would replace Assistant Superintendent Brian Harris when he leaves for the top job in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200. Harris, second in command to Schlomann, was also the chief negotiator during teachers contract talks. The district has already received 67 applications to fill his spot.

Schlomann said a problem with cutting staff to solve a budget problem is that it's no longer necessarily true that administrators have the highest salaries across the board. Teacher salaries have "caught up significantly," Schlomann said. "Where we're struggling right now under our organization is if you're a senior-level teacher and you're making $65,000 to $80,000 a year, and I come to you and say I want to make you an assistant principal for $70,000 to $75,000 a year, why would you do it?"

Schlomann said if the state doesn't want school districts to open that Pandora's box of staff cutting decisions, it has to come up with more money for schools or change the way schools are funded.

"The state forecast is 20,000 teachers and employees of school districts are going to be let go," Schlomann said. "If 20,000 employees of Caterpillar down in Peoria were being let go, the legislature would be up in arms."