D97 costs up, deficit jumps

School board eyes new strategic plan process

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By BOB SKOLNIK

Once again District 97 Oak Park Elementary Schools will be running an operating budget deficit this year. The deficit for the 2005-06 year is projected to be $2.86 million, Gary Lonquist, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, told the school board last week at the public hearing on the budget. Last year the operating budget deficit was $1.18 million. This increase in the budget deficit marks a reversal of a four year pattern of shrinking budget deficits.

The education fund, which comprises more than 68 percent of the budget, will run a deficit of $1.94 million, up from $1.58 million last year, according to the district's recommended budget. This will be the sixth straight year the education fund is operating at a deficit. This year's increase in the education fund deficit marks a reversal from a pattern over the past four years of declining deficits in that fund.

The district will fund the operating deficit from its reserves.

"We're very fortunate in this district to still have significant reserves," Lonquist told the board.

However the district now faces difficult choices. Eventually it must either cut programs or raise revenue.

"This budget, for the scale of operation, is real tight," said Lonquist. "There is not much left in here to cut out."

According to a memo Lonquist prepared for the board "the cost of the current scale of operations continue to increase faster than revenue has increased."

The district plans to spend $67,605,005 this year, an increase of 6.21 percent from last year's spending according to District 97 documents. The education fund expenses are projected to be $46,096,729, a 4.88 percent increase from last year.

The district is budgeting $6,306,673 for operations and maintenance, an increase of 12.79 percent over last year.

This figure caught the eye of some board members.

"I'm really worried about operations and maintenance," said board member Sharon Patchak-Layman. "There has to some creative thinking in operations and maintenance."

Given the high and rapidly increasing costs of energy, Patchak-Layman even suggested the board might have to consider closing the schools in January to save on heating costs.

Other ideas suggested include sending out more small contracts for competitive bidding and to consolidate small contracts.

The budget will be voted on at the Sept. 14 meeting of the school board.

Today, Sept. 7, the school board will hold a special meeting at 7:30 p.m. to discuss strategic planning.

In the strategic planning process the board will consider how it can get its spending out of the red. Issues such as future staffing levels, opportunities for consolidation of administrative functions, and efforts to increase both educational and administrative efficiency are likely to be discussed.

At last week's meeting the board voted to officially hire Dr. Kelly Baird to the new position of curriculum coordinator for the middle schools and Carol Thessfeld as curriculum coordinator for the elementary schools. Each will earn $72,275 annually.

The board also officially hired 27 new teachers.

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