Why does District 89 need more money? More students coming, educators say

A rising student population that's projected to continue to grow is the main reason Glen Ellyn Elementary District 89 is asking voters for permission to increase taxes, officials say.

The district has added 302 students in preschool through eighth grade since the 2012-13 school year, an increase of 15 percent. It now educates 2,270 kids, and its population is projected to grow 12 percent in the next four years. That could lead to an increase of 580 students - or 31 percent - over an 11-year span.

"With increased enrollment, you need increased teachers to teach those kids in the classroom," Superintendent Emily Tammrau said.

But a number of financial factors also play into the decision to seek an operating tax rate increase that will cost the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $396 a year.

For four of the past six years, the district has operated with unbalanced budgets, resulting in a total deficit of $1.6 million. Officials filled the gaps with reserves, but now have dipped below the amount it needs to keep on hand to meet a policy set in 2011.

To maintain reserves equal to 10 percent of the coming year's expenditures, the district would need $3.1 million. But Maureen Jones, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said reserves have dipped below that.

A new state funding formula that took effect last year isn't any help, Jones said. It continues to fund the district at a stable state contribution rate of roughly $1.5 million a year.

These are among reasons why members of a community finance committee suggested two options: seek a tax increase to stop deficit spending, rebuild reserves and cover higher operating costs; or make cuts to programs to lower spending.

Asking for more

The school board this summer voted to put a tax increase question on the ballot, marking the first time it has done so for operating expenses in 32 years. The rate approved in 1986 was intended to last 10 years.

Now Jones is making the same projection, saying the new operating rate is designed to last a decade. By 2023, she said, the district will have built back the reserves needed to meet its policy without making cuts.

Without new revenue, cuts could include: eliminating full-day kindergarten and offering a half-day program, eliminating extracurricular clubs and sports, reducing gym from five to four days a week, eliminating the gifted program for second and third grades, eliminating band for fifth grade, and eliminating orchestra for fourth and fifth grades.

Other changes could include reducing social workers and counseling, reducing intervention supports, reducing library staff hours and increasing class sizes.

"While none of us want to pay more in property taxes, the idea of shortchanging the school system and starting to cut programs and increase class sizes - to probably an average of over 30 kids in a class - is not something we should do," said resident Mike Lullo, a member of the community finance committee.

Support, skepticism

While Lullo and others push for approval of the ballot measure, residents including Vicki Schmidt are skeptical.

Schmidt said the district instead should instead take other steps, such as charging a fee for full-day kindergarten.

School board President Beth Powers said officials considered a fee but decided against it because the program has helped more students read at grade level by the end of kindergarten.

"If you have to charge, kids that might not be able to afford to come wouldn't be able to receive those benefits," Powers said. "And some of those kids are the ones that need it more than others."

Schmidt remains unconvinced. She said the district should seek parent support for band and orchestra, and shouldn't assume demographic projections are correct.

"I don't think we should have to fund extracurricular activities and anticipating new teacher salaries," Schmidt said. "It's a lot of money, and I don't think it's promising people very much."

Pay to maintain

Indeed, the tax increase isn't promising to add anything; its aim is to keep educational programming the same.

But Powers and Tammaru said that's the desire they heard from the community during a yearlong "Our 89" engagement process conducted last year, with the help of a $37,921 contract with consultant Unicom Arc.

A phone survey found 57 percent of respondents favored or strongly favored a tax increase; 37 percent leaned toward opposing, opposed or strongly opposed; and 6 percent were unsure.

Residents who participated in "Our 89" sessions largely expressed a desire to keep education the same, even if it requires more money, they said.

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  Fifth-grade student Breanne Crawford works at making a bridge in the Challenge class for gifted students at Park View Elementary in Glen Ellyn. Glen Ellyn Elementary District 89 is seeking a tax increase to keep all educational programming, including Challenge classes, the same and shore up finances after four years of deficit spending. Bev Horne/
  Fifth-grade student Aiden Arquilla makes a bridge in the Challenge class at Park View Elementary in Glen Ellyn, which is for gifted students. Glen Ellyn Elementary District 89 hopes to maintain its educational programming, including Challenge classes, by asking voters for a tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot. Bev Horne/
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