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'We are not okay': Deficit budget highlights problems, tough solutions in Oswego School District 308

Deficit budget highlights problems, tough solutions in Oswego School District 308

OSWEGO – The cost of the pandemic and the ensuing budgetary deficit will have ramifications across Oswego School District 308, according to school district officials.

The point was raised during the public comments and board member comments portions during the Monday, Sept. 28 meeting of the Board of Education, where the district's Return to Learn plan was presented for the first time. During the meeting, the board also voted unanimously to approve a deficit budget, affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As the budget shows a deficit, the district is required to create a deficit reduction plan, likely resulting in the return of budget cuts and fee increases.

District parent David Edelman said in his public comments that the budget "has highlighted the simple fact that we are not okay."

Edelman referenced an operating fund referendum that had been placed on the two most recent ballots by the board, which had failed both times with voters.

"This has been years in the making," Edelman said. "The community has now told us twice that it doesn't want to pass the operating fund referendum. People in years past have advocated not levying, and now we have a deficit of $5.9 million."

Referencing comments Christy Tyler, chief financial officer for the district, had made, Edelman said, "I would respectfully disagree that COVID is not to blame for this, though it sped it up."

The OSD 308 community, he continued, needs to "clearly see what will be cut to balance the budget."

"The impact of this issue will now have a significant impact on our community as it relates to property values, the quality of our community, and the future investment of developers," Edelman said.

The district has three options, he told the board.

The first would be for the community to raise the money "to set the district back on track." The second and "absolute worst" option, he said, would be for the district to continue to borrow money. The third would be for the district to shift focus and become a "core academic institution" and save costs by eliminating all extracurriculars.

"This moment has been coming for a long time," Edelman told the board.

The budget discussion continued during the board member comments, later in the meeting, when board member Toni Morgan weighed in.

"Hearing about the budget makes my stomach hurt, because we all know what it takes to reduce $2 million or $3 million – we all do. To get to $6 million is a lot of money," Morgan said. "It's a lot of money in a time where we know that the state of Illinois doesn't have it, and the idea that somehow it's going to come out of this great responsible new future that we're creating is unrealistic, and I'm not an unrealistic person."

The cheapest option for the district, Morgan said, is to not reopen schools for in-person education as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, as remote learning is the "cheapest option."

However, Morgan acknowledged that there are many students in the district who need the additional support provided by in-person learning, referencing public comments made in previous board meetings.

"As we said at the last board meeting, there are some parents and some kids who really, really are hurting because there's not the choice of going back to school or being online," Morgan said.

A proposal to phase students and teachers back into the classroom was presented to the board during the board's Monday meeting and is expected to be voted upon at its Oct. 13 meeting.

"I just want everybody out there to think about, that if you're one of those people pushing for school to come back, you're also pushing for it to cost more," Morgan said. "You need to understand that there's a cause and effect out there as a community, that when we put people back in school it costs us more money, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But then we are going to be faced with the very difficult choices in the spring of how to get some of this reduced."

Morgan highlighted part of Edelman's comments, which proposed eliminating extracurriculars, calling the idea "not an extraordinary scenario."

"That is a very possible scenario. It is a very possible scenario that we will have to cut people, lots and lots of people, for $6 million," Morgan said. "People need to know that when we make these decisions, it's the whole community's job to absorb the blow and the consequences. It's not all Disneyland, it is not all easy, and it is not all the board. It's everybody in the community making choices and balancing out these things that we want to have."

The OSD 308 Board of Education will next meet at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13 at Oswego East High School.

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