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updated: 5/9/2013 4:21 PM

District 10 program cuts likely despite parent donations

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Itasca Elementary District 10 officials are pursuing plans to eliminate some middle school programs next year, despite tens of thousands of dollars in community donations and a much lower-than-expected budget deficit for this year.

The tentative decision to cut seventh-grade Spanish, family and consumer science and a media center director at F.E. Peacock Middle School came Wednesday night during a marathon school board meeting. A final vote still must be taken to make the changes official. Meanwhile, a special school board meeting is slated for Tuesday.

"We don't want to see anything cut," board member Natalie Brinkley said. "But bottom line, we have to make some tough decisions. We're not going to be able to keep everything and balance the budget."

After voters last month rejected a property tax increase to help cover District 10's operating costs, officials announced some cuts were necessary. They have since scaled back plans to lay off teachers and eliminate programs to address next year's projected $423,000 budget shortfall.

Still, several school board members said they were hoping they wouldn't need to cut the remaining three programs, especially since parents rallied to raise money for the district.

The parents and the Itasca Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization recently donated roughly $71,000 with the goal of saving programs.

"It provides us with the opportunity to take the incremental approach and to not cut everything," board member Jenny Burke said. "Once something is gone, it is always gone."

In addition to the donations, the district got an unexpected gift from Springfield: $260,000 in state reimbursements and general state aid.

"The state is starting to catch up on special education reimbursements," said Kory Atkinson, the district's director of operations.

Combined with other revenues and cost savings, District 10 is expected to end its fiscal year on June 30 with a budget deficit of $33,388. That's a far cry from the $560,000 gap that originally was projected.

As a result, the district didn't have to spend down a significant amount of its roughly $2.3 million in reserve cash to cover this year's shortfall.

That's part of the reason why board member Charles Sprandel argued that program cuts don't need to be as drastic.

"I had already said, 'Let's buy some time with that money,'" Sprandel said of the reserve cash. "Now it turns out I've still got that money in the account.

"So I'm leaning toward being willing to spend that money to buy ourselves some time again," he said.

However, board member Daniel Kolar said avoiding cuts now would only push the problem back another year. That would mean going through the process again of letting teachers go and trying to find money to bring them back.

"If we don't balance the budget, we're absolutely, positively going to have to do that," Kolar said, "and put the entire district through that yet again. Because we will once again be forced to position ourselves for options."

Board President Kathryn Miller said cutting the three programs now would allow the district to take advantage of normal attrition, instead of having to fire teachers.

"We're never going to do anything if we don't do anything now," Miller said, "because there's always going to be an excuse why we can't cut."

Parents who attended Wednesday's meeting expressed disappointment about the decision to proceed with some cuts.

While the board agreed to increase registration fees and several extracurricular fees to generate nearly $60,000 in new revenue, the parents said the fees could have been higher.

"I find it really interesting that a lot of you are uncomfortable with raising fees, but you're willing to cut programs," Linda Wellander said to the board.

By donating money to the district, Wellander said, parents have made it "very clear" what they want.

"The parents care," she said. "And the parents want their programs saved."

Nicole Frank said the district should have been gradually increasing fees through the years to avoid the budget shortfall. "Our kids and our teachers should not suffer because the board failed in making a plan years ago," she said.

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