District 204 plans to address priorities gradually, without major tax increase
Priorities are set in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 after officials spent last year listening to residents through an engagement process.
Now the district plans to spend the next several years "chipping away" at issues the engagement work identified, such as large class sizes, deferred maintenance projects, elementary school air conditioning, replacement of locks and intercoms, additional mental health personnel, increases to teacher salaries and relocation of the alternative school at Indian Plains.
The gradual approach means the district does not plan a referendum question to seek a tax increase, Superintendent Karen Sullivan said.
"Nobody has the appetite to go ask our taxpayers for more taxes," Sullivan said. "The community said, 'These are our priorities, but we know you can't do this all at once.'"
While lowering class sizes ranked as the top goal when Engage 204 concluded in May, it is also the costliest, at $16.7 million a year. That means it has to fall into a longer-term category as the district looks to address as many concerns with available state and local funding, officials said.
"There could be some that look at this list and say, 'Well, if class size is the No. 1 recommended priority, then why aren't we doing it?' Well, I think the price tag that comes with it is why. There's no talk of a referendum. But if this is truly what the community is recommending, then that's the only way it could happen, in my mind," school board member Lori Price said. "We are taking the approach of chipping away, keeping our teachers even though enrollment is declining. I think that's the more responsible way."
Enrollment is projected to continue to decline until at least 2021-22, when the district could see 1,400 fewer students than the nearly 28,000 it has now. A large housing development that officials said soon could be in the works for the south side of the district could change those projections.
Still, through attrition and funding shifts, the district kept a stable amount of teachers this year and hired more mental health professionals so a psychologist, social worker or counselor is available at every elementary school, said Laura Devine-Johnston, assistant superintendent for elementary.
Increasing mental health staffers was one of the Engage 204 goals the district began to address immediately.
Also in the immediate category are developing a plan to get $10 million worth of backlogged projects completed, spending $2 million over two to three years to replace all locks and intercoms, consolidating the STEPS program for young adults with special needs into two locations, continuing to install elementary air conditioning at a total cost of $7 million, and finding a new place for alternative high school students to replace the aging Indian Plains building, which administrators don't recommend using for more than another year.
In three years, when it's time to renegotiate teacher salaries, the district plans to raise them again to further help with another Engage 204 goal to increase competitiveness among comparable districts.
Class sizes could take the longest to address, especially because Sullivan said a boundary change also would be required. The other Engage 204 goal that is expected to take years is bringing annual maintenance spending up from $4.5 million to the recommended $8.5 million.