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updated: 2/28/2011 2:08 PM

East Maine District 63 board considers $1.5 million in cuts

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The East Maine School District 63 school board is expected to vote March 9 on more than $1.6 million in cuts recommended by a special financial task force.

If approved, roughly $1.5 million in recommended cuts would take place in the 2011-2012 academic year.

They include:

• Changing start times at some schools to eliminate single bus runs, saving an estimated $350,000.

• Reducing the number of literary specialists, saving $200,000.

• Reducing social workers, saving $190,772.

• Eliminating the gifted program, saving $184,641.

• Reducing the number of speech-language pathologists, saving $159,769.

• Reducing psychologists, saving $103,856.

• Eliminating a disciplinary room at Gemini Junior High School, saving $91,350.

The district is absorbing a $1.7 million deficit as part of its $46 million operating budget for the 2010-2011 school year. District administration cut a few positions going into this school year as well as cut back, and rebid custodial supplies across the district.

Originally, the deficit was projected to grow to $3.6 million next academic year but the district saved money by offering early retirement incentives this year, said David Bein, District 63 executive director of business services.

Staffing for the 2011-2012 school year also will be reduced by 12.5 positions, due to a decline in enrollment and changes in programming. That brings the projected deficit down to $1.7 million next year, Bein said.

Yet, the trend of spending more than the district earns and eating into reserves remains the same, Bein said.

"We are not projecting any real structural change in what's happening," even with the proposed cuts, Bein said. "We will not run as big a deficit over the next couple of years as we had thought a year ago. That is good news. That preserves our fund balance over a longer period of time."

District 63, which serves parts of Niles, Des Plaines, Park Ridge, Glenview, Morton Grove and unincorporated Maine Township, began deficit spending because revenues couldn't keep pace with the increased cost of staffing, insurance and utilities.

The troubled economy has contributed to District 63's problems with shrinking sales tax revenues -- that are delayed in coming besides. Delays in getting Cook County property tax receipts compounds the problem.

After talking with parents at a community forum last fall, district officials created a task force consisting of representatives from all seven district schools, presidents from its four employee unions and a few community members.

"The charter of the task force was to develop recommendations for cuts that would bring about financial stability for at least the next 6 to 10 years," Bein said.

The group worked since December, and presented recommendations to the school board last week. Among the cost-cutting measures the task force considered but did not recommend was increasing elementary and middle school class sizes to a ratio of 28:1 and 30:1, respectively -- saving the district more than $700,000 -- and possibly freezing or reducing salaries for all employees, including administrators, to save roughly $1.11 million.

However, the school board has asked the administration to place both matters on the March meeting agenda as separate action items.

The task force agreed salary freezes should be considered as an option for the 2012-2013 school year.

"This was a very difficult topic and resulted in pretty significant discussion and where the task force ended up was saying not at this time, not for the 2011-2012 school year," Bein said.

The district is in year three of a five-year teacher's contract guaranteeing teachers average salary increases of more than 5 percent, including step raises and base increases.

"The contract was bargained prior to the economy tanking," Bein said.

Even if the school board votes to freeze or reduce salaries, the district can't do it without getting concessions from the district's four bargaining unions -- teachers, custodial and maintenance workers, teaching assistants, and educational support personnel.

Other cuts considered that won't come before the board include eliminating music and art programs, eliminating bus transportation and charging everyone for busing, and

increasing corporate sponsorships.

"If the board adopted and implemented all of the recommended items on the list that essentially provides financial stability over the next two years, balanced budgets over the next two years," Bein said.

Beyond that, the district may have to go out for a referendum to raise taxes. Voters narrowly approved a tax rate increase in November 2004 that was expected to carry the district at least through 2010.

"We believe a referendum should happen," Bein said, "but it should be delayed as long as possible. If there are ways to continue to preserve fund balance for as long as possible ... if there is a way to push it out forever, I believe that would be the preferred option."

The district is projecting a year-end fund balance of $23.4 million at the end of this school year. That includes IMRF/Social Security, working cash and tort, education, operations and maintenance, and transportation funds. That balance is expected to dip to $22 million by the end of 2011-2012, $20 million by 2013-2014, and $16.6 million in 2014-2015.

"We have to be careful when we get down to a fund balance of $12 million," Bein said. "We would likely be looking at tax anticipation warrants."

The District 63 school board will discuss and vote on the task force's recommended cuts at 6 p.m. March 9 at Nelson School, 8901 Ozanam Ave., Niles.