Editor's note: Story was updated April 1 to correct a factual error.
As might be expected in a district with a $300 million-plus debt to pay, finances are on the minds of the eight people running for the Geneva school board.
The candidates are board President Mark Grosso, board member Bill Wilson, former board member Leslie Juby, Robert Cabeen, Jeffrey DiOrio, Dan Garrett, David Lamb and Fred Dresser.
"I think our budget is way too high all the way across the board," Garrett said. He suggested the board give the district's superintendent incentives to make certain amounts of budget cuts. If the superintendent meets the goal, he would get a 5 percent raise; if he doesn't, his pay would be cut 10 percent, Garrett said.
Garrett said he also thinks Geneva could get by with about 20 fewer teachers, or a 5 percent reduction. He also suggested the district could save money by increasing class sizes by about one student per teacher on average.
Wilson, who has been on the board 12 years, said operating costs could be cut to keep tax bills from rising, "but it would get rid of neighborhood schools," and there would instead be grade centers, he said. "Our parents are not going to want that."
Cabeen doesn't see much room for cuts. "My sense is if there was anything the district could do to run the schools more cheaply, they would already be doing it," he said.
Lamb, Garrett and DiOrio disagree with the school board over its decisions not to use more of the money in reserve to repay the debt, as was suggested by a financial consultant in the fall of 2011.
Juby was disappointed the board chose to demolish the Coultrap School building.
Dresser disagrees with the board's decision to increase property tax levies, but Grosso pointed out that last year, the board did not increase it as much as it could have.
Lamb also questions the amount of the district's reserves, which officials dip into to cover bills when funds are low. Given the 9 percent interest on some of the district's debt, it might be better to use the reserves to pay that and borrow short-term cash via lower-interest tax-anticipation warrants as needed, he said.
Dresser said sacrifices made by individuals in the private sector, such as pay freezes and layoffs, "make it difficult to justify increases in salaries and benefits at this time" but that if the economy improves, the district should consider doing so, as long as that doesn't cause a property tax increase.
Lamb suggested taking a harder look at the transportation budget. Garrett criticized spending on things like applying for awards, such as the Bright Apple award or awards for preparing budgets.
One of the major areas in which all agree is that the practice of pay increases referred to as "step and lane," where teachers automatically receive increases for seniority and level of graduate education attained, should probably be replaced with something else.
Garrett praised Grosso's handling of the teacher contract negotiations, which almost ended with teachers striking. He agreed with the decision to include a union member on the new salary review committee. That committee will study changing how teachers' pay is determined.
"Because we can't sustain the step-and-lane," Grosso said. "Its time has passed."
Wilson said step-and-lane was a "1930s" device needed years ago to improve teachers' low pay, but it is no longer beneficial.
DiOrio was the only one to not give an absolute "no" when asked whether he would support a pay bump near the end of an administrator's career for the purpose of boosting pension benefits.
"Often those increases are put into place to ensure that administrators announce their retirement in such a way that allows the district ample time to work on a quality replacement," he said.
Juby said she favors results- and goal-based budgeting. But she also cautioned that the district has to educate students of all abilities, and is critical of Garrett, Lamb and others who say education can be run like a business.
"You have no control over who is walking through the door. ... Every decision you make has to be tempered with the big picture of the purpose of the school district," she said. " ... We are not producing widgets."
Money: All candidates agree step-and-lane raises should end