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updated: 9/25/2012 3:26 PM

District 204 finishes year in the red

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By Kristy Kennedy
Daily Herald correspondent

Hard-to-predict items such as revenue from students lunches and transportation costs for homeless students put Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in the red by about $171,000 as it closed the books on fiscal 2012.

School board members heard the news Monday night as they voted to approve a $287 million budget for fiscal 2013 that projects the district will be in the black by $429,000 next year.

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"Tight budgets require ongoing oversight and control," Assistant Superintendent Jay Strang said, adding last year's budget is undergoing routine auditing. "We simply don't have any wiggle room in our budget to go over any line item."

The fact that the district's budget could be affected by how many kids buy lunch underscores how tight the budget is, board member Christine Vickers said.

"In the scheme of things, it's not a lot, but it is deficit spending," she said. "You know I'm not a proponent of deficit spending or even spending all your means. That is a concern I have."

District 204 has slashed $40 million in spending during the past four years. The district's finances have been squeezed by reductions in state funding, the recession, the cost of implementing more rigorous education standards and to evaluate principals and teachers partly on student achievement. To make those cuts, the district has made dozens of changes ranging from staff layoffs to reductions in extracurricular sports programing to closing some school buildings during part of the summer to save energy costs.

The last time the district had a deficit was in 2010 because of a delayed state payment. Since then, District 204 has budgeted for late payments. The state currently owes the district $5.5 million.

District officials said last year's deficit was caused by several factors. For instance, lunch receipts were about $500,000 less than expected as the number students paying for their lunches dropped while the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches increased.

District officials also are keeping an eye on transportation costs that have increased not only because of higher gas prices, but also because of the higher number of homeless students the district serves. Five years ago, there were 20 homeless students taught by the district. That number has increased to 136 this year. Superintendent Kathy Birkett said districts are required to transport and teach their students who become homeless no matter where they currently live. Transportation costs are high because a single student, for example, might arrive by taxi from Chicago every day. Last year, District 204 spent $321,000 on those trips.

The fiscal 2013 budget includes implementation of $9.4 million in cuts achieved by laying off about 114 teachers, support staff members and administrators, eliminating or reducing some athletic programs and extracurricular offerings and closing the district's Frontier Campus, a college-like setting for some high school seniors. Some of the cuts paid for about $5 million in expenditures on technology, evaluations, assessments, curriculum and instruction materials. Those costs are needed as the district implements tougher Common Core education standards and evaluates principals beginning this year and teachers by 2016 on student achievement. Earlier this month, board members also narrowly approved pay raises for teachers, administrators and other staff. Raises were tied to or kept lower than cost of living increases.

"I like this budget," board member Lori Price said. "I think it shows the financial health of our district. It's tight,"

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