District looks ahead in wake of referendum failure

With the aftermath of the recent referendum that failed by a margin of 326 votes, 4,411 no and 4,085 yes, the Oswegoland community is wondering how it would affect the district as a whole. The April 2 referendum was meant to provide the funds needed for the cost of maintaining the daily needs of SD308. The passing of the referendum would have aided in the following: building operations, classroom supplies and materials, and transportation costs. Fiscal year 2020 will mark the fourth year SD308 will be faced with budget cuts and other means of  increasing revenue in order to ensure a balanced budget.

A district in need

SD308’s budget issue started through a combination of prorated state funding and a past freeze on the tax levy enacted for three years, from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2016. This played a significant role on the district’s deficit. Essentially the state of Illinois did not provide SD308 the federal grant that was owed and the city was not able to raise taxes to have enough revenue to support the schools.

Since the referendum has failed, SD308 will have to resort to more budget cuts. Banks said that although these changes will be tough to accept at first, it will ensure that the district puts in a long-term plan for a balanced budget in the coming years.

“We needed to make these changes due to our financial position. [According] to basic economics, you cannot spend more than you have without either making cuts or bringing in more income.  It’s as simple as that,” Former President of the Board of Education Brad Banks said. “ I know people have their opinions that this district is failing, which I would strongly argue is false.  Do we have the ability to provide every opportunity for our students and carry all programs, financially? The answer is no. I know that we offer some great programs in this district, more than our surrounding districts, but with our financial situation and the results of the referendum not passing, we have no choice but to scale back in order to meet our financial obligations to our taxpayers.”

SD308 schools at all levels would be affected by the referendum according to Board of Education member Toni Morgan.

“Elementary schools have to do with less TOSAS, coaches who help teachers. Middle school will have intramural sports.  High schools do not have activity buses,” Morgan said.

Morgan added that the failing of this referendum has negative effects on the district as a whole, but because of it one of two things will happen. It might make some people decide to leave the district, but it may also may galvanize more support and get us going back in the right direction.

The program that would be hit most next school year is sports, not only in middle schools, but on high school levels as well.

Athletics Director Robert Kaminski said that at the high school level, the referendum not passing impacts East through a 10% operational budget reduction. This, of course, is an additional 10% from the 10% decrease last year. So, there is now a 20% decrease in the sports operational budget than there was in 2016-2017 school year. The Athletics Department is still unsure of what this will look like for 2019-2020 school year and how it would impact student athletes.

“We have not yet determined how we will go about accounting for the 10% reduction to our operational budget, so at this time, it’s impossible to determine if and how student athletes will be affected.  Those who play multiple sports are not impacted any differently for next year than they are this year ($300 participation fee this year, and $300 fee next year as well). Had the referendum have passed, fees for student-athletes to participate at the high school level would have been cut from $300 to $250,” Kaminski said.

Board of Education member Brent Lightfoot said that the district’s main priority in considering budget cuts is to  keep them as far away from the students as possible. Every item the board looks at during the decision making process is based on its potential impact on the students.

“The budget cuts last year and this year were done to ensure that the district can continue to operate, provide funding, and continue to provide a quality education. Unfortunately, we are not able to offer all of the programs and initiatives that we have had in the past, but it’s the reality that we must live with while the State continues to underfund District 308 – per their own funding formula,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot added that he was not surprised with the results of the referendum because, based on previous votes, it seemed that the people were not in favor of a tax increase.

“There will be an adjustment to the changes that are coming with the reduction of support staff and programs at all levels.  The students and staff will adapt to these changes and it will become a ‘new normal’ moving forward. Does anyone on the board want to make these changes? No.  But we have to live within our means and these decisions were tough but our intent was, and has always been, to keep the impact as far away from the students as possible. Children are resilient and will adapt to these changes,” Banks added.

A plan responds to need

“The district has been focused on reducing our budget expenses over the last 3 years. The budget cuts are to ensure that the district can continue to meet their operation’s needs, provide funding and most importantly, provide a quality education to our students. The State continues to underfund the SD308, per their own funding formula, which reflects on the decisions to reduce and remove programs for students,” Banks said.

The referendum would have increased the property tax to a 30-cent operating tax rate increase per $100 of equalized assessed valuation, which is the result of applying the state equalization factor to the assessed value of an amount of property. Tax bills are decided through multiplying the equalized assessed valuation by the tax rate. For example a home estimated at $200,000 would have a property tax increase of about $15 a month and a home estimated at $350,000 would have a property tax increase of about $28 a month.

“The 30-cent referendum would end the deficit, providing an annual surplus and positive fund balances for many years. By Fiscal Year 2029, estimates show the district maintaining a positive year-end budget, along with a fund balance of over $50 million,” Banks said.

By having a positive year-end budget, along with a fund balance of over $50 million, it would provide for unforeseen expenses, like delayed payments from the state and the assurance of local control of our schools in the future.

“If the financial state becomes bad enough then, yes, the state takes over and appoints a group to oversee the district and make decisions necessary to balance the budget. These decisions would no longer be local,” Director of Communications and Public Relations Teresa Komitas said.

Komitas added that the district did not advertise for the referendum for legal reasons; however, Komitas explained that the district provided the community with ample amount of information regarding the referendum.

“[SD308] did host a number of public presentations, town halls, community conversations, letters to the editor, parent and staff messages, handouts, social media posts, and a webpage dedicated to the referendum. By law, we are not able to advocate for or against the referendum,[we can] only to provide factual information to assist voters in making their own decision,” Komitas said.

More is yet needed

The Board of Education started mentioning a referendum in December 2018. That is when active community member, Robyn Vickers, decided to form Vote Yes to Invest to bring awareness to the community about the importance of passing the referendum. Vote Yes to Invest is an organization that is parent-led and led by community members who are concerned for the district.

“When the Board of Education started talking about a referendum in December, I reached out to a few people who are active in the community and concerned about the district. We chatted informally in a Facebook group. By the time they voted to put the referendum on the ballot at their January 9 meeting, we already had our name. Vote Yes to Invest held its first official organizing meeting on January 13,” Vickers said.

During the months leading up to the referendum, Vote Yes to Invest used social media to communicate with the community on a daily basis, specifically with the use of Facebook ads to reach a wider audience. They gave out 1000 buttons and the volunteers wore green Vote Yes to Invest shirts to the school board meetings and other events. Finally, they organized campaign days and handed out literature to 1700 doors throughout the district. Although the referendum did not pass as they hoped, Vote Yes to Invest will still continue advocating for the financial stability of SD308.

“Vote Yes to Invest is not going away, although for now our mission will be slightly different. We will continue to attend board meetings and educate the public with facts about the financial situation in the district,” Vickers said.

According to Vickers, next March there may be another referendum and Vote Yes to Invest will be there every step of the way.

“Based on the last financial statements from the district, they will need to put another referendum on the ballot for the next election in March 2020. We will advocate for them to do that as soon as possible so that we have time to educate more residents about the need for the referendum. We just finished a large survey and will be analyzing those responses to better hone our plan to reach more people,” Vickers added.

Vickers said that she believes that the district is doing its best considering the situation at hand, and that their attempts to keep the cuts far away from the students have been admirable. However, her main concern is that eventually the district will exhaust all its options in attempts to balance the budget, which is why action must be taken now.

“My biggest concern about the financial crisis is that we’ve depleted reserves to balance the budget. Adequate reserves are essential to deal with late payments from the state or unexpected expenses. The best practice is to maintain 25% of the annual budget in reserves, which for SD308 equals $50 million,” Vickers said. “We currently have approximately $16 million and without further drastic cuts, we will have less than $10 million by 2024 … It’s a horrible situation and I know that the board members and administrators do want to impact the education of the 18,000 students of SD308.”

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