Each of the candidates in the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 school board race agree projected deficit spending needs to be curbed.
But questions over how the district arrived at its financial predicament and the urgency of its situation yield very different answers.
The six candidates running for three 4-year seats are divided into two slates: incumbents Gerald Chapman, James Ekeberg and Dave Seiffert on one side, and newcomers Scott Herr, Gerard Iannuzzelli and Manjula Sriram on the other.
Chapman, the board president and former superintendent of Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, disagrees with claims that the teachers' contract is to blame for the latest projections showing the district's reserve fund balance dropping from $55.5 million today to $5.2 million in 2015-16.
He said the deal, giving teachers base pay raises averaging 1.1 percent on top of step and lane increases, is far more conservative than the one signed five years ago. The average teacher salary has grown 2.2 percent from 2008, he said.
Chapman said other cost-saving measures also were put in place, such as requiring teachers to contribute more for their health benefits.
"I don't think you can blame the dramatic increase (in projected deficit spending) on the last contract," Chapman said. "That said, we still can't live with the gap."
Chapman agrees with Ekeberg, a doctor who's also served on the board since 2007, that other factors have led to the budget hole. Those factors include delays in state payments, diminishing interest collected on reserves and changes in how the federal government pays for grants.
"I think the current board recognized (the economic downturn), and no budget is cured in one easy step," Ekeberg said. "We're moving toward it."
Seiffert, a regional sales manager for Hudsonville Ice Cream Co. and District 15 Educational Foundation trustee, said the key is to look forward and rely on the administration's recommendation for budget cuts.
Seiffert was appointed to the board in January to fill the remaining two years in Mark Bloom's term. Should he win, he'd serve a four-year term and another appointment would take place to fill what was left on Bloom's tenure.
Like his running mates, Seiffert this month voted to ask the teachers union to consider reopening its contract. He said it'll be important to have a positive and productive dialogue.
"I think they'll see what the community is seeing, that we're in this deficit program in the midst of a tough economy," Seiffert said. "Hopefully they say, 'Hey, we need to compromise as much as everyone else.'"
The challengers, none of whom have held an elected office, say a financial turnaround can't take place without significant changes to the teachers' contract.
Herr, an IT consultant, said the board shouldn't have approved raises knowing the rate of inflation was just 0.1 percent. He said the average raise including base salary, step and lane increases for the 722 teachers who worked full-time in 2008-09 and in 2009-10, the first year of the current contract, was 5.5 percent.
"The board made a decision to increase expenditures dramatically without any associated revenue," Herr said. "And it's a growing gap, which is the worst part of it."
Herr downplayed the importance of payment delays from Springfield, since state aid accounts for only 12 percent of the district's budget. He said the deficit would be worse without a few windfalls the past couple years, such as including the federal stimulus and tax increment financing revenue from the village of Palatine.
Sriram agrees, adding that teacher concessions have to be the priority because reducing staff would increase class size. She pointed to the 29 students in her twin boys' class at Pleasant Hill, well over the district's third- and fourth-grade guideline of 24 students per class.
She suggested eliminating step and lane increases for the time being and sticking with raises equivalent to the rate of inflation.
"I balance my checkbook everyday and want to make sure the board is too," said Sriram, a program director in information services.
Iannuzzelli, a director of technology, said the district must act quickly to get off the path of deficit spending.
He said he rewards employees by how well they perform, not how long they've been with his company, and believes a merit-based compensation system could be implemented in District 15.
"There are teachers getting 5, 6 and 7 percent raises," Iannuzzelli said. "We have to make sure (the contract) is fair as a whole."
The Northwest Suburban Council of PTA/PTSA is sponsoring a District 15 candidates forum at 7 p.m. Thursday at Sundling Junior High, 1100 N. Smith St., Palatine.