First reported 6/24/2010 4:17 p.m.

If District 97 does not pass a tax-hike referendum in spring 2011 it will have to pursue deep cuts in programs and staff to balance the budget, outgoing Supt. Constance Collins told school board members during a budget discussion at their regular meeting on June 22.

Based on discussions with building principals and her administrative cabinet over the last few months, Collins presented a recommendation for roughly $2.6 million in reductions. Those cuts would likely take effect for the 2011-’12 school year and are suggested as an alternative if the district’s planned, spring 2011 referendum to boost operating funds fails.

Collins said the areas identified for reductions-which include teaching assistants, programs and salary freezes among top-level cabinet administrators-were not singled out. Collins said these were long and difficult discussions and that no option was off the table. The largest, and likely most painful cut, would be the elimination of the district’s FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School) program – a reduction of its nine teachers and $627,000 in total salaries.

Another large cut would be to the Multicultural Center, currently housed at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave. The center would remain but the three-member staff, including its director, Lynn Allen, would be eliminated, a reduction totaling $216,000. The center’s staff would instead be outsourced, Collins said.

Nearly half a million dollars would come from cutting five media specialists/librarians-roughly $549,000 in salaries. The superintendent’s office would see one staff position eliminated, totaling $77,070. A salary freeze among cabinet level staff is also on the table, a proposed reduction of more than $20,000.

All told, 22 positions would be eliminated. Collins stressed that no decision has been made to cut any staff or programs at this time.

“We’ve got to do it,” said Peter Barber. “I’m fine if we don’t get a referendum; if our community decides that that is not something that they choose to support at that time-that’s fine. This is what we’ll end up with; or something very much like that. And it’s not going to be a matter of, ‘Oh, we can’t cut.’ We’re going to have to cut something if we don’t get it.”

The district projects an operating deficit of about $2.5 million in its 2011 fiscal year, which begins this Thursday, July 1, and would likely deplete its cash reserves by 2014. In March, the district estimated a loss of roughly $5 million for fiscal year 2010 due to state cuts in education.

Audio of Supt. Constance Collins presenting recommended reductions to the Board of Education 

In the 20-plus years that Dist. 97 has gone without an operating fund referendum, other Oak Park taxing bodies have sought and won levy increases from taxpayers. The Oak Park elementary school district, though, has made no secret in the last five years or so of its desire, and need, to run a referendum. It’s an expressed goal in the district’s strategic plan, and running a ballot measure next year is also recommended by the district’s Finance Oversight and Review Committee.

The board and administration also left open the possibility that programmatic and staffing cuts needed to be considered. The board directed Collins and her administration to explore reductions. At last Tuesday’s meeting, the outgoing superintendent-her tenure ends today-also reviewed cuts the district has made in the last 10 years. She noted that reductions have occurred almost every year since 2000-more than $7 million-as well as annually since her hiring in 2005.

School board members also acknowledged that no one wants to see any cuts, especially to teachers. Collins recalled that during preliminary discussions, various groups objected to certain cuts.

“My question was: what do we replace it with, because no matter what we put on the list it’s going to be difficult for some group within the community and within the district,” she said.

Board members echoed a similar sentiment.

Collins and board members noted that the $2.6 million might not be enough to balance the budget and could only be a starting point. Also, reductions to programs like FLES and multicultural education would also greatly impact the Oak Park school culture, said members.

“These programs-these are definers for the Oak Park educational experience,” said Michelle Harton, who supports going for a referendum next year. “It’s that whole diversity piece of why people move here. So, when you start to put these on the chopping block; that really is a significant part of what we say the experience is all about. So, the community has to weigh in.”


What would go and what would it save?

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Referendum transparency

Board member Rance Clouser pointed out that the night’s agenda – which is posted on the district’s Web site more than 24 hours before a meeting – did not expressly state that members would discuss whether or not to go for a referendum, noting that some in the community might feel misinformed.

Several members, however, stressed that the district has talked about a possible 2011 referendum for some time. They also maintained that the night’s listed agenda item “potential reductions in the event of a failed referendum” was sufficient notice of their discussion.

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