While a school board member will be called upon to make many subjective decisions in a 4-year term, the question of whether a district's budget relies on deficit spending or not would seem to be an objective one.
But the issue of whether Barrington Unit District 220's budget is balanced has become a matter of debate itself among the six candidates running for four opens seats on its school board.
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The candidates include incumbents Sandra Ficke-Bradford and Penny Kazmier, Tower Lakes Village Trustee Sophia Chen-de Vries, and first-time candidates Wendy Farley, Christopher Geier and Jerry Keaton.
Keaton, a Barrington resident and a financial adviser for the past 25 years, questions the district's claims to have balanced the budget for years, noting that the current budget relies on $1.85 million from reserves to overcome an operating deficit.
The district also has been issuing debt extension bonds annually in the amount of $2.2 million, Keaton said.
While he admits that the district has had some financial difficulties imposed on it -- including a significant reduction in the state's share of transportation funding -- Keaton said current practices don't meet a strict definition of a balanced budget.
"Do the revenues equal the expenditures?" Keaton said. "No they don't."
Geier, a business owner from Lake Barrington, agreed, saying a truly balanced budget is one that's sustainable without creating new debt or borrowing from one fund for another. He also expressed concern over district projections of deficits through the next five years.
"How do you fix this?" Geier said. "What if this actually happens?"
But the other candidates do not share Keaton's and Geier's take on the budget.
"I have not heard about the $1.85 million deficit," said Kazmier, an incumbent from South Barrington. "We are not deficit spending. I don't know where that came from."
When asked to help clarify, District 220 Superintendent Tom Leonard said independent auditors have declared the district's budgets balanced for the past 17 years.
What the candidates likely are debating, he said, are subjective views on Debt Service Extension Base borrowing, a finance mechanism that came about near the time of the tax cap limiting property tax levy increases and that is used by many area districts. DSEB borrowing provides usable revenue upfront that needs to be repaid within several years.
"There are different views of DSEB borrowing," Leonard said. "Some would say you shouldn't use it, some would say we statutorily have a right to use it."
Leonard said his own definition of a balanced budget would be one in which money coming in -- from all sources -- is greater than or equal to money going out.
Chen-de Vries said she has experience with budgets from her eight years on the Tower Lakes village board. She also has been attending District 220 meetings and following district issues recently. She said the board's dedication to balancing its budget is one of the things she finds favorable about the district.
"I don't know where he came up with that $1.8 million figure," Chen-de Vries said.
Though she also is running for re-election as a Tower Lakes trustee, Chen-de Vries said she would immediately resign from the village board if she wins a seat on the school board.
Farley, of Barrington, said she hopes to provide the board with her experience as an attorney with government affairs experience -- not to mention the experience of having managed a multimillion-dollar budget herself.
She expects her experience would maintain the board's strengths rather than correct any current shortfalls in its budgeting skills.
"I want to ensure that excellence continues," Farley said.
Ficke-Bradford, of Barrington, said she stands by the hard work and scrutiny she put in during her first term on the board. But her initial desire to embark on some type of public service has since evolved into a particular interest and know-how on educational issues, she said.
"I think a second-term board member is even more effective," Ficke-Bradford said.