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D65: Long-term budget outlook grim, despite $10M federal aid

Spending to rise 9% this year. Declining enrollment, deficits seen down the road.

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Despite the infusion of more than $10 million in federal coronavirus assistance funds, District 65 School Superintendent Devon Horton says “the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted the District’s already strained financial resources.”

Horton’s budget message is part of the Evanston/Skokie school system’s tentative budget for 2021-22, which is on the School Board Finance Committee’s agenda on Monday.

Spending for the upcoming school year is projected at $156.4 million, a 9% increase over 2020-21’s actual expenses.

The majority of that increase is due to contractual salary and benefit hikes for district employees. Some comes from adding 60 part-time tutors to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. Most of those jobs are temporary, with salaries covered by the federal grants.

While the upcoming budget is balanced, the next few budget projections are, at least for now, coated in red ink.

The district has already cut nearly $3 million in programs, staff and transportation spending, with more layoffs and perhaps even school closings possible in the future.

Enrollment is expected to decrease by 185 students (to 6,792) in the upcoming year, and even more in the years after that.

As Evanston Now has reported, part of the enrollment decline comes from families who left District 65 because of dissatisfaction over pandemic-related remote learning and switched their children to private or parochial schools.

Part of the long-term budget crunch ($11.2 million projected deficit in 2025-26) is due to a state cap on property tax revenues. When expenses rise more quickly than those revenues, the deficit keeps growing, and the only solution is to either find more money, cut costs, or both.

The tentative budget document says the goal is “to ultimately reduce the District’s footprint and structural deficit that has been plaguing the District for decades.”

While the tentative budget is on Monday’s Finance Committee agenda, the final budget will not be approved until after a public hearing on Sept. 27.

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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