The District 200 school board is expected to adopt the 2020 tax levy at a regular meeting on Dec. 17, but the process of finalizing this year’s levy hasn’t been frictionless, with board members openly accusing administrators of playing politics, as they look for the $1.7 million worth of budget cuts likely to result from the board’s new levy.
The tension between the board and the administration goes back to a Nov. 19 Committee of the Whole meeting, when the administration presented the board with three options for this year’s levy.
The board could tax new property and take a consumer price index increase of 2.3 percent, for a total levy amount of $75,097,891. The board’s second option was to just take the 2.3 percent CPI increase, for a total levy amount of $74,781,296.
But the board chose the third option, to only tax new property, leaving out the 2.3 percent CPI increase, for a total levy of $73,409,472. That represents a .4 percent increase over the 2019 tax extension of $73,099,996.
With the third option, the board requested that the administration make budget cuts equivalent to the CPI amount of $1.7 million, said Cyndi Sidor, D200’s chief financial officer, and Alyssa Alfano, the district’s finance director, in a Dec. 3 memo.
“This will result in eliminating building rental usage, overtime, reduction in student sports/clubs, and support services for students,” Sidor and Alfano said.
In a separate slide show presentation that was included in the board packet, administrators said that if the district absorbed the CPI increase, the cost to district taxpayers would be $79.70 a year, or $6.67 per month, on a $400,000 home.
Administrators added that the $1.7 million loss would not be a one-time loss, but an amount that “compounds each subsequent year,” such that after 10 years, the district “will have lost $17 million it would have been allowed to receive.”
In order to make up for the loss, administrators proposed a list of possible cuts, including $170,000 allocated to purchase food for events like retirement breakfasts and holiday teas; $140,000 in costs for field trips; $317,000 in payments for additional staffing; $200,000 in legal services; and $40,000 for special education daily outings; and $165,000 in costs related to clubs, sports and summer camps.
In a slide show entitled “Possible Reduction Ideas,” administrators said the board could consider possibly reducing the number of clubs, sports and summer camps offered; switching to online novels; and closing the pools in order to save money on annual service costs and maintenance.
At a Dec. 3 Committee of the Whole meeting, board members were visibly frustrated by the administration’s recommendations, with most members describing the list of possible reductions as manipulative.
“I am so angry,” said D200 board President Sara Dixon Spivy. “This is a naked manipulation of this board and I am incredibly disappointed.”
Spivy said she’d received an email from swim coaches “who are administrators whipping up a frenzy of our community over cuts that are fictitious and that I don’t believe this board has any intentions of making. We are not going to balance the budget on our students.”
In addition, some community members referenced the proposed cuts during the meeting’s public comments portion.
“I think the district’s move to publish this list is a back-handed move on the backs of our students,” said school board member Tom Cofsky. “What happened was, when this was presented, we asked the board to look at areas where we are overspending and get back to us … it wasn’t to whip up a list of student-centric issues and put them out to agitate the community.”
“It does feel very manipulative,” said member Gina Harris, adding that she had been asking “repeatedly” for the administration to present information showing how the tax levy would impact individual households.
Member Ralph Martire said the administration’s proposed budget cuts seemed eerily familiar to him.
“I teach a master’s course on public budgeting and there’s a whole section on how administrators respond to requests for cuts and the first thing they do politically, if they don’t really want to deal with the cut and want to get more revenue is put politically sensitive stuff on the table and publicize it, so that the general public can create heat and reverse the decision,” Martire said.
“You look at these items and if you live in this community or you work at this school, you’ve got to know once these things become public there will be one or two people who will be upset and anyone who says they wouldn’t realize that is either incredibly naive from a political standpoint or they’re spinning us,” Martire said.
Martire, echoing an opinion expressed by most of the board, said that the administration’s process of looking for cuts didn’t include “a systems review of our administrative costs” and other factors, such as an awareness of the reduced student population at OPRF and whether or not staffing levels have adjusted accordingly.
“What I was hoping for was a slightly more thoughtful approach and certainly not one that would focus on programs for special needs kids or the pool,” he said. “My goodness. You couldn’t pick a more politically contentious topic for this neighborhood than the pool.”
The Dec. 3 meeting was a rare board rebuke of Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams’ administration, which the board has largely viewed as satisfactory.
For her part, Pruitt-Adams said that administrators were just doing what the board had instructed and she emphasized that the listed budget cuts were only “things we need to start considering, because as we move forward we are going to have less and less, so we have to make cuts.”
Administrators said that from 2013 to 2019, the district has levied $48.5 million less than what it was allowed to receive under tax-cap law, a reality they said that has necessitated regular budget discipline.
The superintendent, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said that the email that Spivy referenced did not come from anyone on her executive team. Pruitt-Adams also emphasized that administrators were trying to avoid cuts to teachers and classrooms.
“We were doing what we were asked to do,” Pruitt-Adams told board members. “We believed we were bringing forth items for consideration. None of us want to cut these things, but if we don’t start having a conversation about this, we’ll be here in May and the board will be asking us why we are just now having that conversation.”
“I hear you, Dr. Pruitt-Adams, but it still feels manipulative,” Harris said in response. “I need us to not do it this way … this way is just continuing to deteriorate what we’re working to build, which is trust, respect, understanding, community.”
Some board members pointed out the district’s roughly $100 million fund balance would allow administrators more time to flesh out budget cuts.
“We are not resource poor,” Cofsky said, adding that the district should conduct an “evidence-based” analysis of where its overspending and underspending before taking action, “not just come out and in a week … [give us] the most toxic and politically sensitive areas and put them on a list.”
“We can afford a little bit of time, because we do have the luxury of the fund balance,” said member Craig Iseli. “Let’s not force ourselves to [identify cuts] in two weeks.”
The board will hold a public hearing on the 2020 tax levy (the third option, as presented in November) on Dec. 17. The board will vote to adopt the levy at its regular meeting, which will immediately follow the hearing.