Though they acknowledged the writing on the wall, Palatine Township Elementary District 15 officials the past few years managed to balance budgets without affecting the classroom and without weakening its strong financial footing.
But the 12,000-student district doesn't have that luxury anymore, unless it allows healthy reserves to dwindle to nearly nothing within just a few years.
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Over the next six weeks, the community will learn exactly what cost-cutting measures will be taken to chip away at the $9.6 million deficit projected for 2012-13. At the Feb. 8 board meeting, the administration will present its recommendation, with the board's vote on the scope and magnitude of those cuts coming March 14.
About 50 staff and 70 community members recently attended forums to hear and give feedback on potential ideas.
"We don't talk about these issues without thinking about kids, members of the teaching community and staff that will lose their jobs, and we don't lose track of the community which are the contributors for funding the majority of our district," Superintendent Scott Thompson said.
District officials said about $3.5 million of reductions being considered would directly affect the classroom.
The most drastic proposal on the table calls for the elimination of 49 teaching positions for $3 million in savings. That would result in class size targets for elementary classes increasing to 26 students per class, up from 20 in kindergarten and 24 students in first through third grade. Average class sizes would rise from 28 to 30 students in the four junior highs.
Of those 49 positions, 21 will come through planned retirements. Thompson discussed two less severe class size increases, resulting in up to $1.4 million in savings.
Another possible cut would target program assistants. Thompson said District 15 employs more than most surrounding districts. Though program assistants who help with reading difficulties are protected in the teachers union contract, the district could cut some who work with bilingual and special needs students.
Band and orchestra programs in the elementary schools also could be eliminated to save $350,000, a prospect that's facing widespread opposition. Nearly 1,000 people have signed an online petition urging the district to keep the programs, saying they provide a creative outlet, foster a sense of community and challenge students to be disciplined and dedicated.
Other major cuts Thompson discussed include: eliminating activity buses; reducing extracurricular stipends; reducing the art, music and PE staff without eliminating classes; and spending down fund reserves.
Since salaries and benefits comprise 85 percent of District 15's budget, several people at the forums suggested that employees should take a pay cut and contribute more to their health care. Most employees now don't pay anything for single-person coverage.
But Thompson said there are five collective bargaining agreements that restrict what the district can do. He said negotiations with the teachers union, whose contract expires this summer, will be paramount.
"We can't place this all on the teachers, but any negotiated savings we get from any of the bargaining groups would reduce the need for these other items (to cut)," he said.
Citizens for Accountability, a community group largely responsible for a 2010 petition drive that resulted in a $17 million borrowing plan getting voted down by taxpayers, is presenting its own plan to eliminate the $9.6 million deficit.
For next year, it wants to trim administrator salaries, freeze compensation for all other employees, better control substitute teacher expenses, conduct a district office audit and lower the district's retirement plan contributions by half. The group also proposes reducing health care costs by putting all employees on the same health care plan and raising deductibles or requiring employees to contribute at least half of their health care premiums.
"We realize one or more of the recommendations could be controversial," the executive committee wrote to Thompson. "However, we believe strongly they must be put on the table and given serious consideration if the quality of our school district is to be upheld."
Cuts: $3.5 million of reductions being considered would directly affect the classroom