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updated: 2/17/2011 5:42 PM

District 76 airs $1.5 million in potential savings

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Just before introducing a list of more than $1.5 million in potential budget cuts to a gathering of parents, teachers and interested residents, the Diamond Lake District 76 school board president made one point clear.

"The district is not going bankrupt," Keith Loeffler told a crowd of about 200 who packed the small gym at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein on Wednesday to learn more about what might be happen as the district prepares to combat budget shortfalls.

Loeffler kicked off the forum by saying the board wanted input from all sides on how best to do that.

The two-hour session was spiked with spirited comments, observations and questions criticizing and defending past board decisions, administrative salaries and other aspects of the falling financial picture.

"We knew going in there would be issues people would be passionate about," Loeffler said Thursday.

At one point during the forum, Superintendent Roger Prosise bristled at the thought of taking a pay cut, which topped the list of dozens of possibilities suggested by a parent advisory team that also has been crunching numbers.

"I'm not taking a 10 percent salary cut," he said. "When I started 13 years ago, I was at the bottom."

Prosise, who makes a base salary of about $212,000, said he faced a 30 percent penalty if he left during the first three years of his current five-year contract.

Next year would be the last year and he is expected to forego a scheduled 6 percent increase for 2011-12, according to Loeffler.

Attendees were given district information outlining about $840,000 in "potential savings" for the next school year and about $584,000 for 2012-13.

Those figures were more than was discussed by the board earlier in the year that Loeffler described as an "initial pass."

The parent group had warned the district could go bankrupt in three years if the financial imbalance continued and reserves disappeared.

"I'm very pleased they've embraced the $1.5 million," said Patricia Naegele, one of the core members of the parent advisory group and a candidate for the school board in an uncontested election.

"We suggested they take it all in the first year and take the hit," she added. "At least the number is correct or in the ballpark."

The parent group also claims district revenue estimates are unrealistic, and the continuing drop in home values will have a more severe impact on property tax revenue than the district expects. Property taxes account for 80 percent of annual district revenues.

Budget issues appear to have divided parents into aggressive and more gradual cost cutting camps.

The advisory group is critical of the district practice in recent years of running deficits, rather than approving balanced budgets and spending reserves for normal operations, not special needs.

Dozens of staffers were added in recent years but enrollment has dropped, the group notes.

Prosise said the community feedback was to pay teachers more, which has led to spending increases. He also said he presented balanced budgets but the board decided to spend down mounting reserves.

"The board said, `We're not a bank, we're a school district,'" Prosise said.

The parent group also asserts that while District 76 teachers are underpaid compared to surrounding districts, administrators are not.

"We're looking at everything. We're doing everything we possibly can to maintain the programs for the kids," he said.