On March 8, the District 65 Finance Committee considered a list of proposed cuts in expenses for the 2021-22 school year (FY’22) that was prepared by Kathy Zalewski, the District’s Business Manager. The proposed cuts total $1.9 million.

Last month, the Business Office presented updated financial projections for FY’22-FY’26 to the Finance Committee. Ms. Zalewski said, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the District’s local revenues and added unexpected expenditures, the FY’22 budget is no longer balanced. Subsequent years are being affected as well.”

The revised projections forecast a deficit of $1.9 million for FY’22, growing to $15 million in FY’26 – if action is not taken to increase revenues or reduce expenditures.

“To balance the FY’22 budget, the District will need to reduce its operating expenditures and implement several operational efficiencies,” said Ms. Zalewski.  

The list proposes cuts in 27 areas, many of which relate to cutting back on consultants and other purchased services (about $130,000), reducing expenses for professional learning (about $165,000), and reducing expenses for supplies (about $60,000).

There are five cuts that account for about $1.3 million:  cutting 4 reading specialists; reducing bus transportation costs by pairing bus routes; cutting 3 library media assistants; reducing the cost of maintaining building and grounds through efficiencies; and replacing Camp Timberlee with a day program.  

Finance Committee Chair Joey Hailpern led Board members through a discussion of each of the proposed cuts.

Cutting 4 Reading Specialists

One proposal is to reorganize interventionist support and cut 4 reading specialists, with a savings of $320,000.  

The District currently has 22 reading specialists who provide interventions for students. The District plans to end the use of reading specialists and to use 18 interventionists. Four positions will be eliminated.

Stacy  Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said, “We have used this, essentially, to engage in a process to take a good look at how the District goes about designing interventions.

“When our educators grappled with, ‘What are those interventions that we need to continue?’ and ‘What are ways in which we can become more effective and efficient in the way that we are executing our interventions?’, our compression group bubbled up number one: we’ve got to come around to a more all hands-on deck collectivist approach to our interventions.

“Our educators and leaders said, ‘We are too siloed in our work. We are too siloed in classroom work, our special education work, our emergent bilingual work and our interventions. And the only way that we’re going to start making progress on this is to be increasingly collectivist.’”

Dr. Beardsley said 18 FTEs will be designated for intervention, and a very high percentage of that time will be direct service to students, but who they are serving and the size of the groups will be “directly informed within our MTSS system.

“So, long story short on this, this shift is …  absolutely impactful for our literacy specialists. But it is a piece of a much larger system redesign, where we need to make sure that our MTSS systems are de siloed, are more centralized and are managed collectively in a tighter accountability system. And as this work continues, … our intention is to shift job descriptions, to provide the training supports at the different levels from District administrators, building administrators, educators, and paraprofessionals. And then to support and monitor the implementation to ensure that it’s working for our students.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “The interventionists position is a position where the shift is significant. And so that is a new job description, where individuals would apply for that position.”

Beatrice Davis, Assistant Superintendent of Human Relations, said the reading specialists are tenured positions so “they have a position, [a full time] classroom position for the 2021 2022 school year. But they are also able to apply for these new positions. We’re only posting these positions internally.”

If the reading specialist applies for an interventionist position and does not get it, they will have a position as a classroom teacher.  

Mr. Hailpern asked, “In light of the need, why not keep the same number of FTEs?”

Dr. Beardsley said, “We went into this with a clear understanding of the financial limitations in the District.

“And so, we said, … ‘What are the root causes of some of our issues? And are there ways that we can improve this system, potentially with less?’ And so that is the lens that we lifted, and said, ‘Can we do this in a way where we still feel that we are serving the kids that need these interventions, and support the most?’ And the answer to that was ‘Yes.’ … We designed with an eye for financial limitations.”

John Gallagher, DEC’s Representative at the Finance Committee meeting, said, “I’m just not seeing how we can provide more supports for students with less staff. … I don’t know teachers that do not give 100%. So, I’m not sure how much more toothpaste we can squeeze out of that container. And I just don’t see – based on the information that I’ve heard – that the system is going to be able to overcome the reduction of staff that we’re going to be facing with this.

 “And I am concerned about the equity model of this program, because I am worried that we are going to be not meeting the needs of all the students that we’re currently meeting.”

Dr. Horton said the proposed model was supported by research. He said, “RTI [Response to Intervention] has such a huge effect size on student achievement, we got to factor that in, collectively.”  

Mr. Gallagher said, “I’ve talked to multiple people about this, the shift that we’re talking about, I have not heard any complaints from teachers about the change of paradigm, the change in the system. But I have heard concerns that we are going to be spreading people too thin by removing positions and asking other people to take on a different workload.

“And I think that the biggest concern that I’ve heard that DEC has heard, is trying to increase student outcomes with less personnel.”

On Feb. 22, administrators from District 65 and School District 202 jointly presented data showing the percentages of third- through eighth graders who met the proficiency thresholds in reading on the Spring 2017, 2018, and 2019 MAP tests and the percentages of ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh graders who met the proficiency thresholds in reading on the Spring STAR tests. The chart below shows the data for tests administered in 2019.

The chart shows that high percentages of Black and Latinx students are not meeting proficiency standards in literacy.

At one point, District 65 had 45 reading specialists.

Reducing Transportation Costs by Pairing Buses

The proposal is to change the start times in the middle schools from 8:30 to 8:00 a.m. This will allow all bus routes to be paired at an estimated cost savings of $415,000.

Raphael Obafemi, the District’s Chief Financial and Operations Officer, said that before the pandemic, 40% of the District’s bus routes were paired, meaning that the same bus driver would pick up and drop off a group of students at one school and then pick up and drop of another group of students at another school – in the morning bus run. And the reverse in the afternoon.

 “But then we have about 60% of drivers that run a single route,” said Mr. Obafemi.  He said it is cheaper if the District has paired routes.

“So, what we’re proposing to do is make all our buses paired routes,” Mr. Obafemi said. In order to do that, it will be necessary to change the start time at certain schools to an earlier time, so a bus driver can drop a group of students off at those schools at an earlier time and then have time to pick up a different group of students on a second route and drop them off at another school with a later start time. And, of course, an earlier start time, means an earlier end time.

Board member Suni Kartha said, “I think it’s a good idea and one that we need to move forward with. But I don’t think we can underestimate that this will be, it just is a change that needs to be communicated to families, teachers, to staff, you know, to everybody involved.”

Mr. Obafemi said administrators have been working on a communications plan to notify families and let them know what the District is proposing before it formally presents the plan to the Board.

Mr. Obafemi said, based on experience with using paired routes in the past, the proposed paired routes would work efficiently. He thought the District could manage after-school activities.

Mr. Gallagher said, “If you’re talking about a savings of $415,000 a year, and if you can save five positions with that, I think most teachers would understand that. My first thought is before-school programs, and we’re talking a lot about after-school, but there are a lot of before school programs, too, that might be affected by this.”

Reducing Expenses for Buildings and Grounds Through Efficiencies

There are three proposed cuts: a) reduce the repair and maintenance budget by $161,000; b) reduce custodial/maintenance supplies at a savings of $235,000; and c) reduce maintenance equipment at a savings of $30,000. The total savings is $426,000.

Mr. Obafemi said in coming to this number he consulted with the head of the buildings and grounds department and asked what he thought was doable.  

In explaining how they would achieve these savings, Mr. Obafemi said that after the Referendum passed, the District started adding more skills-based staff, such as a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber, as well as other tradesman, and the District has also invested in equipment to enable staff to do jobs that would previously have required hiring outside contractors.

“So having these people around, and also having a schedule of doing scheduled maintenance allows us to be able to do a lot of the work internally,” said Mr. Obafemi.  

 Mr. Obafemi said they are aggressive on pricing when they buy cleaning supplies, while maintaining quality.

Mr. Obafemi added they will try to keep the expense down or lower in subsequent years. He added, though, that if they cannot do so, they would come back to the Board and ask for additional funds. “But what I will say, we will not sacrifice the cleanliness and the condition of our buildings just to save money.”

Library Media Assistants

One proposal is to eliminate three Library Media Assistants with a saving of $106,000.

Dr. Beardsley said the three Library Media Assistants work at the middle schools four days a week, and at the magnets one day a week.

Dr. Beardsley said they “support the shelving of books, checking out of books, and supervision of the library space when the librarian is in a classroom, delivering instruction or supporting an educational activity connected to the intersection of libraries and disciplines.

“We are committed to figuring out how to sustain some of these functions and the value of a library in a new design,” which may include partnerships with students, volunteers, and possibly other ways to support the librarians.

“But I definitely want to say … For me, this isn’t about minimizing the role of the library in the schools, as much as it is about the moment that we’re in the budget.”

Replace Camp Timberlee With a Day Camp

One proposal is to replace Camp Timber-Lee with a day camp option at a savings of $50,000.

Mr. Hailpern said the District spent around $125,000 on Camp Timber-Lee for the past couple of years, so if the savings was $50,000, there would be about $75,000 for a replacement option.

Mr.  Hailpern added, “Camp Timber-Lee clearly has been in our community for a very long period of time. And I know that there’s a lot of kind of emotional connection to the experience.”

Several other Board members commented on the value of Camp Timber-Lee.

“The camp itself has not been aligned clearly to learning outcomes for science, STEM, or social emotional learning for a number of years now,” said Dr. Beardsley.

“It is a great opportunity for bonding, but it’s no longer a learning experience that’s well aligned to our experience to our goals and outcomes.”

 She said, “We want to do some engagement going forward, but we see it being more of a day camp option going forward and with clearly defined learning outcomes that are connected to some of the vision in the direction of the District.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “We’re committed to doing some engagement to see what kind of option would make sense.

Mr. Gallagher said “I know that there are some experiences through the camp and that some of our students did not have that opportunity in any other setting. And again, I understand the need for tough cuts. This one just, it’s a little close to home. I really enjoyed the time at camp and it’s hard to see that one go.”

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “I wonder if there is a way to think about how to assess what are some of the social emotional impacts that Camp Timber-Lee has had? And then think about how to fill that gap?  She expressed concern about leaving “under-resourced children and families out from having an overnight camp experience.”  She said it might be valuable to have focus group conversations.

Early Childhood

The District is proposing a savings of $122,000 from retirements and reorganization of support staff in the early childhood area.

The staffing changes “would be coming from our compliance team and would not have any, from staff that have any direct contact with students,” said Romy DeCristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services. “We worked with the program administrator who oversees the compliance team to develop a transition plan that would help redistribute and kind of streamline some of the processes to other members on the team so that we would be able to maintain compliance, still doing all the work with less people.”

Nutrition Services

One proposal is to eliminate five server positions (three of the positions are now vacant) at a savings of $33,000.

Mr. Obafemi said the three positions have been vacant for this year and the prior school year, and “We’ve been able to operate effectively without those positions being filled.”

He added the positions have been difficult to fill, saying “someone has to be committed to working two hours a day, 176 days a year for not a lot of money.”  

Professional Learning

Savings of about $57,000 in professional learning have been identified, but another $100,000 is on the list and is not allocated to any department. “We are still early in the process, we haven’t identified all those areas yet,” said Ms. Zalewski.  

Dr. Horton said, “$50,000 of that is coming from my budget. So that’s half of it.”

Cuts in Administrative Expenses?

“Lastly, on my list is administration, “said Mr. Hailpern. He said that administration overhead was highlighted as a motif in the Thought Exchange survey, and in input received from the community.  

Mr. Hailpern noted that there were no line items that expressly mentioned cuts in administrative expenses, and he asked Dr. Horton what would be done in that area.  

Dr. Horton said, “There will be some administrative cuts, but I don’t have the freedom to speak about those right now.”

Limiting Authority in Spending

Mr. Hailpern said he thought the Board should revise its policies to require Board approval of expenses over $25,000. “I think we need to recommend a policy change that requires not just things over $25,000 in certain areas to be brought before the Board, but anything that’s over a certain amount to be brought before the Board for approval so that we have oversight over checks that are written beyond a certain amount.”

No time was specified for the Finance Committee to consider this proposal.

Timing of a Draft Tentative Budget

In a memo to the Board, Ms. Zalewski said the proposed budget reductions would be incorporated into the FY’22 operating budget. There are still many things that are unknown that could affect the budget. Some of the unknowns Ms. Zalewski mentioned are the allocations of certain federal funding; long-term COVID-19 pandemic effects on the District’s revenues; a potential pension cost shift on the expenditure side; and a potential property tax freeze, which may significantly reduce local revenues even further.

Ms. Zalewski said, a draft of a FY’22 Tentative Budget will be presented to the Finance Committee in June, and a Tentative Budget will be presented to the Finance Committee and the full Board in August.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...