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The District 202 School Board unanimously passed an $83.2 million overall budget, including capital and operating expenses, for Evanston Township High School’s 2016-2017 school year (FY’17) at its Sept. 6 meeting. The operating budget is $72.4 million, up 1.4% from last year. There is a slight operating surplus of $20,000.

While the approved budget is balanced, future actions could force the need to consider a “Plan B,” said Mary Rodino, Chief Financial Officer. 

Possible actions by the State of Illinois, combined with uncertain economic factors, could add tremendous stress to the newly approved budget and force the Board to consider changes midyear. “It’s no news that the State doesn’t have its budget in order,” said Ms. Rodino, who said inaction in Springfield is beginning to resemble the movie “Groundhog Day.”  She predicted that not much will change on that front until after the November election. 

Operating Revenues

District 202 receives 85% of its operating revenues from property taxes. State property tax caps limit the amount by which the District may increase property taxes to the lesser of 5% or the Consumer Price Index. The applicable CPIs for FY’17 (which spreads over two calendar years) are 0.8% and 0.7%. These low CPIs do not provide the District “sufficient funds to pay for its labor or even come close to covering the increased costs of providing health care,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon in a memo to the Board.

Reductions in State and federal aid continue to be a concern. General State Aid will likely continue to be prorated – or funded – at only 87%. Federal and Categorical State Aid are expected to continue to decrease.  The Personal Property Replacement Tax (PPRT) has been “unknown for several years” and has basically been “taken back,” said Ms. Rodino. The District also has yet to see $80,000 in grant money promised by the State for construction projects.

Operating Expenses

Salaries are budgeted at $49.1 million, up 1.86% over last year. The District was able to achieve some savings by replacing retiring teachers with new teachers at lesser salaries, but was required to add personnel for special education services. The cost of fringe benefits, including health insurance, is estimated at $6.1 million, up a modest 0.43%. Salaries and benefits total $55.2 million, which is 76% of the operating budget.

Purchased services and outside tuition both increased and each represents 8% of total expenditures. Spending on supplies and materials decreased 3.5% which represents 5% of the spending budget. Capital outlay decreased by 2.46% and represents less than 3% of the budget.

To achieve these numbers, the District reduced expenditures by more than $900,000 by reducing several staff positions from 12 month assignments to 10 months, by focusing on consultants, travel, professional development, and supplies.

“Instruction remains our top priority,” said Ms. Rodino. The District works to avoid layoffs “whenever possible” and continues to institute cost-saving measures and make capital expenditures that reduce operating costs.

Possible State Actions

State legislation, if enacted, could have a significant impact on the District’s budget. Dr. Witherspoon said, the State is proposing a new school funding formula which would reduce the District’s funding by more than $2 million.

Another “lingering financial threat from the State is the pension reform measures,” Dr. Witherspoon said. If the State Legislature assessed school districts the “normal cost” of funding teachers’ pensions, it would shift more than $2 million in new expenses to the District, he said.

Under either of these scenarios, “a Plan B may be needed,” said Ms. Rodino.

Board Comments

Board member Doug Holt asked about federal Title I funds, and how the budget is leveraged to address students from low-income households. The budget of $227,500 in Title I funds for this year is down $100,000 from what was budgeted last year. There were some reallocations and carryovers, said Ms. Rodino, and teachers were “able to do more with less and didn’t need all the money.”

The District “struggled for a few years” because 40% of Title I funds were to be allocated for those on free- and reduced-fee lunch, Ms. Rodino added. Now funds can be used on all students, such as with Wildkit Academy, which accounts for more than $26,500 of the Title I budget. Other programs for reading, AVID and needs of homeless students are financed through the Title I budget, she said.

Jonathan Baum, a member of the Board, said he felt the District’s use of Title I funds posed “kind of a dilemma,” pointing to the “range of students served” by the Wildkit Academy. “Do we need to target more directly?” he asked.

Principal Marcus Campbell said that a range of programing is funded through Title I.

Mr. Baum also pointed out that, because some “budget lines are down,” does not mean the school has “reduced the level of services” or student-teacher ratios. 

Ms. Rodino explained why the amount budgeted for Special Education services decreased $109,200 from last year. She noted that an amount “more than needed” was budgeted last year, there were some shifts in staff, and replacing retired teachers with a younger work force saves money, she said. We “didn’t reduce counselors. If anything there is now an improvement in the ratio. We’ve saved quite a bit of money and kids are being served.”

“There may come a time when we do have to do service reductions, and we want to distinguish those,” said Mr. Baum.

“That would be part of the information discussed with the Board and the public,” said Ms. Rodino.

Mr. Baum asked about students placed in out-of-District schools for Special Education placements. “Dr. Walls has worked hard to see what’s best for students. Some are coming back [to ETHS] part-time,” said Ms. Rodino. “We have fewer off-campus placements,” confirmed Dr. Witherspoon. 

There were no public comments on the budget.

“There are so many threats to our budget, and I’m still very worried,” said Board President Pat Savage-Williams at the end of the discussion. “But I understand that [staff has been] thinking, referencing a Plan B, and we may have to go there.”