At the Oct. 5 meeting of School District 65’s Finance Committee, administration officials presented their plan to engage the school community and the larger community in discussion of ways to address the District’s projected operating expenses. Similar to the way the District crafted its strategic plan, administrators will seek reaction from the community to a set of “scenarios” and ranking of programs, ideas or values rather than seeking original input.

On Sept. 8, the District presented financial projections to the School Board showing an operating deficit of $731,866 in 2016-17 (FY’17), and then operating deficits of $3.6 million in FY’18, $6 million in FY’19, and $4.4 million in FY’20. The projections do not take into account potential property tax freezes or changes in the way the State allocates State funds to school districts.

The Administration’s Plan

Two major factors are influencing the decision to cast a wide net of opinion among the larger community: a structural deficit at the District level and uncertainty about how the State of Illinois will further burden local school districts, said Superintendent Paul Goren. Given those two factors, he said, “we are thinking about how we move forward in a prudent manner [to do] what we want to do for all the children we serve in Evanston and Skokie and their families.”

Dr. Goren also said that although the administration is “concerned about the upcoming year, our deep concern” is for the following year, 2017-18.

The timetable for creating the scenarios through community engagement is relatively compressed, because the administration hopes to present to the Board in January or February of next year some recommendations on “how to move forward as it related to  2017-18.”

To get to the January recommendations, the administration plans to hold two town hall meetings – one for teachers and staff and one for the community at large. Concurrent with these, the District will release a survey for “staff and community to identify priorities and suggest ideas for cost-savings or revenue-generation.” These will be conducted in a framework of scenarios created by the District; the surveys and the town hall meetings will “ask for input on priorities/strategies.”  

The administration is creating a “Superintendent’s Budget Committee” – also called the Advisory Committee – the core of which will be the members of the financial stability committee of the strategic planning process, along with as many as five additional people with financial expertise.

That committee will hold two meetings. At the first one, planned for November, committee members will “assess the landscape” by reviewing “budget documents and presentation, benchmark data and values/priorities from stakeholder surveys and town halls,” according to a budget planning process overview document prepared for the finance committee meeting. The second meeting will be “solution-generating,” according to the document. The committee will be asked to “make recommendations regarding the viability of various options/scenarios and identify any additional options to explore, including revenue-generation strategies.”

Board/Administration Discussion

All seven Board members attended the Finance Committee meeting. Board member Richard Rykhus asked about the Districts “program-effective analysis” and how that would factor into assessing or soliciting input.

District 65 Chief Strategy Officer Maria Allison said, “As we compile option scenarios, [we’re looking at] ‘Is this something that we have some evidence that this is highly effective [or ]something we don’t?’”

Noting the absence of Peter Godard, chief officer of research, accountability and data, Dr. Allison continued, “I would caution that, in terms of when we say ‘program effectiveness data,’ in terms of having deep analytics that would demonstrate impact of the full range of programs from an analytic standpoint, I don’t think that’s super-feasible. … We certainly won’t have a slate of program evaluations and analyses on all these things. It will be more sort of … understanding of our macro-level data and things like that.”

“Obviously, when data is available, that would be helpful,” Mr. Rykhus said.

Mr. Rykhus also asked how the administration planned to solicit stakeholders’ information – how much “guidance” the administration would give to the stakeholders. “Are we going to give them choices?” he asked.

“People may just respond by indicating whatever program is most important to them. Part of our goal is hearing that, but they should be told the goal is [to identify] programs that identify student success.”

“I think it is a little bit of both,” said Dr. Allison. “I think it will be framed in the context of the budget documents that we’ve put together for this year, the data on the benchmarks – where we spend more and where we spend less than our comparison districts. [It will be] a combination of looking at rankings/tradeoffs but not voting – weighing things against each other but not voting, evaluating the viability of different options. … We don’t want to end up in a situation where we’ve given a predetermined slate and are asking for an up/down vote.”

“The teachers should help with that range of options,” said Board President Tracy Quattrocki.

Dr. Allison disagreed, saying when administrators meet with the teachers [at the town hall meeting] they should “bring something to the table that’s not totally a blank slate.”

Board member Jennifer Phillips asked why the administration planned to have the town hall meetings and the survey be concurrent.

“It all backs up to the timeline,” said Dr. Allison. She said the Advisory Committee members would need to “understand the state of the District.”

“How will the survey be different from the town hall meetings?” Ms. Phillips asked.

“Not everyone gets their voice heard in town hall meetings. It’s another way to respectfully engage voices in the community,” Dr. Goren said.

Mr. Rykhus suggested that the administration hold separate town hall meetings for the teachers and the central office staff. “If the town hall is to dig deeply, you would get a lot more information if there is a separation by roles.”

Finance Committee President Candance Chow said Dr. Goren could “give us an update on what you decide and how it’s going to roll out.”

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...