As School District 308 wrestles with crippling budget deficits projected for the foreseeable future, candidates for the School Board talked finances at a Tuesday night forum organized by the district’s teacher’s union.
Most candidates were quick to point the finger at the state of Illinois and its beleaguered system for funding education as a major source for the district’s financial problems. Those problems include a $7 million budget deficit for 2017-18 and a projected $13 million for the following year.
District officials have estimated the state has shorted the district some $76 million since 2012. And while the candidates stressed that the state needs to provide its share of education funding, candidate Robert Graves urged the district to begin looking closer to home.
“I hear a lot about what the state has done,” Graves said. “… There will have to be some concessions made… We have to look at local solutions. The state just doesn’t have the money.”
Candidate Brent Lightfoot, who previously served on the board, agreed.
“Sitting here waiting for Springfield to do something – they’re not going to,” he said. “… We have to fix the problem here. Springfield is not going to do it.”
Incumbent Board President Matt Bauman said getting the district’s finances in order will need the cooperation of all stakeholders and local state legislators. However, after the board approved Monday night the layoff of nearly 40 first and second year teachers and a 16 percent reduction in administration, Bauman said continued cuts are not a long-term solution.
“We can’t just keep cutting our way out of this,” he said. “If we focus solely on cuts we’re going to cut away until we lose the value of our district.”
Fellow incumbent Michael McDowell agreed, saying the district needs to come together as it navigates its way out of its financial difficulties. However, when it comes to further cuts in what could be “dire” circumstances, McDowell said no programs will be immune.
“If we get in a situation that’s very dire, everything that costs money will be a consideration. There (will be) no favorites,” he said.
Another blow to district finances could come in the form of a property tax freeze proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. If such a freeze were to pass in Springfield and the state doesn’t change the method by which it funds education, district officials have said it could mean $37 million less for the district over the next decade.
Candidate Heather Moyer said because the district relies so heavily on local property taxes to fund public education, she couldn’t support a freeze without changes to the funding mechanism.
“A property tax freeze alone doesn’t address the issue of our reliance on property taxes to fund public schools,” she said. “The state has chronically underfunded schools for years, years and years. … If the state were to change its funding formula I suppose I could support a statewide property tax freeze.”
Candidate Dominick Cirone agreed, saying the impact of a property tax freeze on District 308 would be too great. As a compromise he proposed a property tax freeze for property owners on fixed incomes.
“The state has not been shown to be a steady administrator of funds,” he said. “So, giving the state more say in local affairs seems unwise. If they moved forward with a property tax freeze, the state would obviously have to raise taxes in some other way.”
With the district undoubtedly pursuing budget cuts beyond next year, the candidates were asked whether they feel the district should continue funding elective courses for students.
As a member of the board’s Policy Committee, incumbent Danielle Paul said she has studied whether to cut the high school day to six classes per day from the current seven. She said what the committee found is that such a move would have a negative impact on students interested in the fine arts and similar types of electives.
“I think it’s important that we fund (electives), she said. “It’s just a matter of where to do we come up with the funds to fund them. … It’s important that we still provide a well-rounded education.”
Candidate Toni Morgan agreed, but went further. She said the arts should be considered core curriculum.
“The creative arts are a more lucrative future for our kids than you would guess,” she said. “… In the United States creative jobs in the arts provide more jobs than Walmart. As we look to the future to get kids ready – use the creative arts to do it. The creative arts should be integrated in all learning through all schools because it makes learning fun for kids.”