Hawthorn District 73 candidates address budget deficit
Hawthorn Elementary District 73 is considering ways to offset a $1.5 million budget deficit and other expenses in coming years as a new kindergarten building and renovations at six schools are completed.
Six candidates are running for four, 4-year seats on the board. Among incumbents, Sonali Patil holds a doctorate in pharmacology and Robin Cleek is an attorney. Both are stay-at-home moms seeking second terms. George Fievet, senior manager for platform development for AIM Specialty Health, was appointed Jan. 14 to fill a board vacancy and is seeking a full term.
They are joined by newcomers Joel Finfer, a retiree who served on the Stevenson High School District 125 board from 1990 to 2002; Michael Murphy, a senior IT consultant; and Lenny Nieves, field service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Both are seeking their first elected office.
Victoria Helander-Heiser, who also was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board, is running uncontested for a two-year term.
In November, voters approved borrowing $48.7 million for new and renovated school buildings but rejected a tax hike to maintain and operate them. Candidates were asked about dealing with the deficit and whether voters should, at some point, be asked again to hike taxes for operating expenses. Interviews were done before district administrators this past week presented more than $1.52 million in suggested cuts to be done over the next two years.
"I don't know that there's an immediate answer to how you close it, but certainly that's something that needs to be worked through by reviewing scenarios, identifying what will affect the kids -- the students -- the least and make sure it plants a stable picture for the years to come," Fievet said. "You certainly don't want to do something as a gut check reaction and then make things worse," he added. He said he hoped a future referendum was unnecessary but it will come down to "making sure that the kids are educated and the community stays healthy."
Cleek advocates looking for ways to trim and determining if new revenues are available. She agreed that whatever is done needs to be "least impactful" to students.
Cleek said she wants to avoid a asking voters for a tax increase and has no plan to suggest it. Voters sent a "clear message" last November and probably won't support a tax hike to cover expenses unless they see the district making "significant strides in attempting to find other ways to close that gap," she added.
"I think we need to do that first and see how far it takes us," Cleek said.
Patil, the board president, said voters want the district to cut costs.
"The first step is to find efficiencies in our operating budget, which is as far away from the students as possible," she said. The district will "go as far as we can" before asking the community how much more can or should be done.
"We would definitely not build something that we could not operate," she said. Grants and innovative revenue sources, such as corporate sponsorships for STEM centers, will be sought to advance projects.
"I think there are places that we can still explore," Patil said.
Finfer supported both referendum questions.
"You can finesse finance a little bit. You can't finesse space. It's not like there's going to be $50 million worth of additional space that comes online tomorrow," he said.
"When you're presented a set of challenges, we have to look at a wide array of solutions," he added. If finance officials at some point suggest a referendum, the board will have to consider it, he said.
Nieves also cautioned against knee-jerk reactions and said he had a different perspective after more than 13 years with the teachers union.
"My concern is the trickle-down effect it would have on kids. Too many times, I see school boards start messing with class size or laying off what they view as nonessential personnel or noncritical education," he said.
He said he would vehemently oppose cuts to programs like art or music but, even with belt-tightening, didn't see the need lessening. While he would avoid it if possible, Nieves said he would "strongly push" for a referendum if the board determines it necessary.
Murphy rejected that idea.
"I wouldn't support another referendum. I think there's definitely ways we can improve and be more efficient and find cost savings," he said. "I do it at work every day. I've done it my whole IT career. We just look for efficiencies and we implement them. We use technology, and it usually has a good result."