On Jan. 4, District 65 launched its Thought Exchange, saying, “District 65 is planning for its future and is committed to investing in the priorities that are most impactful for our students and our Evanston/Skokie schools. From January 4-13, all are invited to join the virtual conversation as part of its first Thought Exchange. The insights and perspectives gathered will inform equitable decision making as part of the district’s budget planning process.” To view the entire announcement, click here.

At the District 65 Finance Committee meeting held on Dec. 9, the Thought Exchange was heralded as an online tool intended to gather community input that will help the District address its projected deficits.

The Projected Deficits

The District’s latest financial projections forecast that it will operate at a surplus of $67,243 in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2022 (FY’22), and then operate at deficits of $3.4 million in FY’23; $6.6 million in FY’24; $9.6 million in FY’ 25; and $12.4 million in FY’26. The accompanying chart illustrates the growth in projected deficits.

At the Dec. 9 meeting, members of the District 65 School Board appeared to concur that it would be necessary to cut about $10 million in expenses to balance revenues and expenses by FY’25, but several said they still wanted some additional information.

There was no discussion at that meeting about how much should be cut for the next school year, 2021-22 (FY’22), or in each subsequent year. While funds from the 2017 Referendum have been set aside to address future deficits, the plan is to preserve the Referendum Funds and to truly balance the District’s operating revenues and its operating expenses. For an article about that meeting, click here. 

The Thought Exchange

For the Thought Exchange, the District poses one open-ended question: “As we review our short and long-term financial outlook for Evanston/Skokie District 65, what are some important things for us to consider and prioritize.”

The District says participants using Thought Exchange:

-        ---  may share thoughts or ideas in response to the open-ended question,

-         -- are encouraged to review and rate the thoughts of others, by clicking on one to five stars,

-         -- can track the results of the exchange in real time, including which thoughts are rated highest and what themes are emerging.   

Participants do not have to provide their names but are asked to provide other information, such as their race/ethnicity, whether they have children attending District 65, whether they are an employee of the District, and other information.

The Magnitude of the Deficits

The Thought Exchange is intended to gather information to help the District assess its “short and long-term financial outlook.” The Introduction, though, does not provide information about the magnitude of the District’s projected deficits.

Nor does it state that the District is projecting operating deficits that grow to $12.4 million by FY’26 or that the School Board plans to cut about $10 million by FY’25.

The Introduction does provide a link to a page titled “District 65 Financial Outlook.” That one-page summary says, “Like many other districts, the COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on the District’s already strained budget. While the projected deficits have been on the horizon for several years, they have only intensified. As we look toward the coming school year, the District will need to reduce its budget by upwards of $1 million. This is an extremely difficult but necessary step forward in addressing the structural deficit that has plagued the District for years.”

Like the Introduction, the Financial Outlook page does not mention that the District is projecting escalating deficits or indicate that the District is seeking input on addressing deficits that that grow to $12.4 million by FY’26.

The Financial Outlook page does contain a link to “D65 Financial Resources,” which in turn contains links to five other documents.

The first link is to “Financial Outlook: 10 Quick Facts,” a one-page document that mentions, among other things, potential revenue losses and added expenses due to COVID-19. It says, “To address COVID-19 related expenses and a resulting deficit for the FY’23 budget, the district must consider reductions that could total between $1-1.5 million for the upcoming school year.”

It does not mention the projected deficits for FY’24, FY’25, or FY’26.

The projected deficits for FY’23-26 are contained in other multi-page documents that are linked to the District 65 Financial Resources document, namely a Presentation at the November 19, 2020 Special Finance Committee Meeting; the 2020-2021 Budget At-A-Glance; and the 2020-2021 Final Budget.

But how many people participating in the Thought Exchange will click through to read those documents is unclear. And absent a clear statement in the Introduction to the Thought Exchange, it is unclear how many participants will understand that their input is being sought on how to address budget deficits totaling about $10 million by FY’15 or $12.4 million by FY’26.

The RoundTable asked Superintendent Devon Horton, Board President Anya Tanyavutti and Finance Committee Chair Joey Hailpern why participants were not advised of the projected deficits in the Introduction and other summary documents and whether participants’ comments will be meaningful without being told about the magnitude of the projected deficits and that the goal is to reduce expenses by $10 million by FY’25?

Mr. Hailpern told the RoundTable, “The current Thought Exchange platform prompt is intended to include onramps for all community members to engage. To your question about including specific financial information there are two reasons for not including more information. 

“The first is doing so might narrow the intention of someone who joins the exchange to reply to the prompt that does not have background knowledge on the issue. For those people specifically, the prompt as presented does not prohibit a response or contribution. For those with knowledge of our current discussions, etc, the prompts also allow them to bring that information to their contributions. 

“Another reason is that we did not want to originate the conversation from a deficit standpoint.” 

Melissa Messenger, Director of Communications, told the RoundTable, “Our goal in launching the Thought Exchange was to begin a more in-depth conversation with the community and gather diverse perspectives related to priorities and considerations as we plan for the future. While the discussion is rooted in financial decision making, we believe it is important to set the tone for productive dialogue on community values and priorities, not on potential recommendations for reductions at this time.

“This will be an ongoing conversation over the next several months, with engagement opportunities, that will dive deeper into the financial outlook and deficits that we face.”

 The Thought Exchange may be accessed by clicking here:  Click to Participate Now