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updated: 3/28/2013 5:30 AM

Dist. 203 candidates debate district finances

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As state lawmakers consider shifting teachers' pension costs to schools, the 11 candidates for four open seats in Naperville Unit District 203 disagree on the district's financial readiness to take on such a burden.

The question was posed to candidates during a recent forum hosted by the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation. Candidates were asked whether they would support tax increases or service cuts to handle the cost-shift.

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Incumbent Susan Crotty defended the board's fiscal policies and insisted it is ready.

"I'm very proud of our district. We've been judicious in already building these assumptions into our budget so even with the tax shift we are financially solvent through 2018," Crotty said. "Shifting the cost from the state to local level is not reform, and that's really what we need to push for. We have cut $18 million from our projections over the past five years. I would say no new tax levies. We have to live within our bounds and use our reserves."

Charles Cush, a marketing executive, said the district needs to better evaluate spending.

"We need to evaluate how we are spending our current dollars. I believe the district has done a good job, thus far, of making sure we have balanced budgets and are keeping things together. So I think we need to evaluate if there are opportunities to be smart about the spending and spend less and less on different things," Cush said. "We need to look at programs we have in place. Are they the best programs to make sure we are meeting the needs of our students. And, if they are, are there ways we can be more efficient in how we do that?"

Attorney David Fish, however, said the district is headed for financial ruin

"Within 24 months, we are going to be spending more than what's coming. Within five to six years, there's a multimillion-dollar difference between what is coming in and what we're spending. That's going to lead to problems. This is right out of the school's 2012-2013 tentative budget," Fish said. "We need to make decisions about what we can cut but not educational services. We need to start making smarter financial decisions than we have right now."

Jay Fisher, a member of the district's Citizen's Financial Advisory Committee, said he's reviewed district budgets and doesn't think it's time to panic.

"The committee has looked at the finances and noticed the district's reserves are over $40 million, which is twice as much as the board policy of 10 percent. The district should be able to handle the phased-in pension cost shift without increasing the levy," Fisher said. "In fact, the committee looked at the financial projections and reserves ... I think this district is in good shape to handle the cost shift."

Kristin Fitzgerald, a health care consultant, said it's time for the district to begin prioritizing spending.

"Pensions are an enormous issue for our school district and every other school district in the state. Our school district is well-prepared. We have a balanced budget through 2017-2018 and enough surplus to cover unanticipated funding losses," Fitzgerald said. "That being said, when we get to 2017 our spending is going to outpace our revenue. I believe the answer to that is to look right now at our priorities. Prioritization and searching for efficiencies will be enough to keep our balanced budget further into the future."

Derek Krauss, a senior project manager, said he believes the district will be able to work within the existing levy but needs to control costs.

"There's more to fiscal responsibility than just raising taxes every year. Our real problem lies in the fact that our costs are already projected to increase in the same period we're talking about at a rate of 4 percent to 5 percent every year, even though we are not expecting enrollment to increase," Krauss said. "Does that make sense? I don't think so."

Sabina Qadir said she has spoken with Assistant Superintendent for Finance Dave Zager and is confident the district is in a good place.

"I spoke to (Zager) and he assured me we are five years away, if the cuts happen now, from having any cuts in our school programming or funding," Qadir said. "The current board has done a great job foreseeing the state's fiscal situation and has planned accordingly. I would look to tighten the budget and use emergency funds available within our budget. I would also look to the guidance of our superintendent, his administrative team and my fellow school board members before deciding whether to seize the debt levy."

Heather Rajamoney, a physical therapist, said the district can't stop being diligent.

"We do not want to stop being diligent with our financial management. We must still plan carefully. My fear is if we wait for the state's decision, it freezes us into indecision and action as a district," she said. "If I were to get elected, (fiscal responsibility) would entail checking budget items line-by-line to look for redundancy, waste and relatively high costs that only benefit a minority of the students."

Incumbent Jackie Romberg said the district, with the help of the citizens' committee, is in a good fiscal place.

"The citizens finance advisers have discussed the possibility of these costs to the district and have included these costs in the district's current projection. With this expense included, the financial projections have us maintaining our current program and services through 2018," Romberg said. "As the proposed ongoing pension cost shift is described today, which is included in our projections, I would not see a need to levy new tax funds."

Neil Samuels, an organizational consultant, said it's too early to rule anything out.

"We need to examine all of our activities, engage our entire community, look at all of our resources and all of our costs," he said. "Then we consider all of our options rather than perhaps focus too early, too narrowly and perhaps miss out on some creative ideas that could actually make a significant difference but we need to start that process now."

Donna Wandke, a church youth group leader and former teacher, praised the district for its financial management to date.

"District 203 has made extensive efforts to cut the budget and over the last five years, reduced $18 million. At that same time, the district was able to abate the debt service levy for four of the past five years," Wandke said. "The district has done a great job of trying to put us in a financial position looking to the future. I would not cease the abatement of the debt service levy and I would not seek cuts in staff, services or capital expenditures."

• To see all of our coverage of the Naperville Unit District 203 race, including candidate bios, go to www.dailyherald.com/news/politics/election/race/Naperville-Unit-District-203-School-Board/.

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