Fresh off a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly opposed Palatine Township Elementary District 15's attempt to borrow $27 million, the school board election of two years ago focused largely on how to turn around the district's dire financial outlook.
Since then, budget cuts and a less costly teachers contract have reversed a trend of deficit spending, and plugged a hole in the district's diminishing reserves.
This time around, nine candidates are vying for four open board seats in the April 9 election. The Daily Herald recently asked them about the district's financial condition and future uncertainties. Some answers have been edited for space and grammar.
Q: How do you think District 15 has handled budgetary pressures in recent years? Amid the uncertainties of outside funding sources, are there ways the district could be more in control of its own destiny?
Peggy Babcock, 60, homemaker; board member since 2009: Unfortunately we are reliant on property taxes. I don't see this changing. I am a taxpayer and like everyone, I feel the burden. Reductions in federal funding, unfunded mandates and unreliable state aid have made school finance a guessing game at best. I support balanced budgets and am proud of the strides made to reduce deficits.
Richard Bokor, 65, adjunct professor and retired teacher; board member since 2009: During my four years on the BOE, I have encouraged and supported balanced budgets, despite great uncertainty at the state and federal funding levels. Illinois state debt issues have certainly placed future state aid payments in jeopardy. Despite late and/or lower state aid payments coupled with reductions in federal funding for education, District 15 has not had to increase local tax rates. The future of educational funding is uncertain, and District 15 is going to have to continue to be creative in keeping up its quality of education without placing more of a tax burden on its stakeholders.
Ramnath Cidambi, 41, IT director: The biggest uncertainty that could hit the school district is pension reform in Springfield. None of the school districts in Illinois (non-Chicago Public Schools) are prepared for it. Outside of this issue budgetary pressures will continue to increase if teacher pay (biggest component of budget) continues to increase. The community does not have an appetite for a property tax increase. New ideas for funding could include looking for grants from organizations, federal grants for STEM education, potential increase in fees charged to parents every year, etc.
Dr. James Ekeberg, 64, family physician, served as board member from 2007-2011: The current contract for the teachers is a great step in the right direction and I believe the district, with its legal counsel, should work to bring its other labor groups to similar contracts for the future.
Abdul Javid, 42, manager at Motorola Solutions: We were no doubt in bad shape, (and) corrective actions are taken in (the) recent contract with teachers. Our fiscal challenges were noted by community and board members working with teachers, (who) started agreeing on cuts. I admire our teacher fraternity for coming forward and working as team to deal with budget challenges last year. The tiered salary structure model and elements of gradual increases in salaries based on years experience is great approach. We are in better shape now but we still have to keep the momentum going on fiscal responsibility. We have to continue evaluate ways to do more with less.
Donna Johnson, 54, part-time financial consultant: Budgetary pressure will always be there if the board is handling the community's school finances responsibly. Having no budgetary pressure means an automatic increase in taxes for the district's taxpayers without any compromises to living within its means. The district needs to have an ongoing goal of keeping expenses in line with its current revenue, without raising the community's taxes unnecessarily, in the coming months and years. Many residents are hurting in this tough economy and are counting on its elected officials to ensure fiscal responsibility. Collaboration with surrounding school districts is one way to possibly tackle potential financial shortfalls. Another way is to welcome more volunteers.
Matt Lyons, 37, CIO of mid-sized trading firm: Although poor financial decisions were made that caused deficit spending several years ago, the teachers union, current board and current administration have worked together over the past year, ultimately leading to a new contract that should eliminate structural deficits. All involved should be commended. About 80 percent of District 15's revenues come from local sources, meaning we already rely less on the state and federal government than a majority of Illinois. Increasing that percentage would likely mean either increasing property taxes or decreasing state and federal revenues, and neither option makes sense. On the expenditure side, we need to continue budgeting expenses within our means.
David Seiffert, 50, regional sales manager; board member since 2011: We need to be fiscally responsible. The uncertainty of what is happening with the state of Illinois makes this an even tougher burden. We were able to come to a great agreement with the CTC (teachers union) and this has helped tremendously. And we need to always explore ways to make the best budgetary decisions. We are so dependent on the taxes from our community, we need to make sure we (use) those dollars in the best possible way.
Jennifer Zold, 46, part-time trust and property manager: I have been attending board meetings since 2005. Until recently, I've noted its financial history has been marked by a lack of transparency, stability and long-term planning. The former lack of transparency is most notable in the 'back door referendum' attempted in 2010, in which the board sought to issue $27 million in bonds without soliciting public dialogue or advisement. My goal is to work toward the elimination of these unhealthy drains on our community. To smooth these fluctuations and discord the district needs to stay on the trajectory of greater stability through focus on a long-term plan. The best defense against uncertainty is through awareness on federal and state policy change, as well as maintaining careful, conservative fiscal policies.