The unanticipated $7.5 million in red ink in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 was summed up this way by Board of Education member Joey Hailpern at Monday night’s board meeting:
“Going over the way we’ve been going over doesn’t add up.”
Indeed, while it does not add up the way board members would like, the Fiscal 2023 budget (which ended June 30) did add up to more money going out than coming in.
And that means additional financial scrutiny for the upcoming budget, and for budgets to come after that.
“We had some end-of-year surprises in our expenses,” said Hailpern, who chairs the board’s finance committee.
“This will lead to some tough conversations” on what might have to be reduced, modified, or even eliminated.
When it comes to spending, “is it a need, or a want?” Hailpern said.
Higher-than-predicted costs for transportation was the largest component of the FY23 deficit.
Of course, many expenses cannot be avoided, but sometimes, as board members said, invoices for certain contracts are being paid before the board has a chance to review them.
“Some of those expenses are ongoing,” noted board member Soo La Kim, but “especially for new contracts,” she said, “there needs to be a heads up” for the board first.
And even older contracts, Kim said, “need occasional review and assessment.”
The school board has to approve the upcoming Fiscal 2024 budget by the end of September.
While District 65 expects to end FY ’24 with an $800,000 surplus in a nearly $171 million budget, long-term pressures will not go away.
Enrollment keeps shrinking, transportation expenses will keep rising until the new 5th Ward School opens in 2025 (reducing a lot of busing), D65 is gradually taking over the costs of crossing guards from the city, and the teachers’ union will be negotiating a new contract next year.
“The biggest thing,” said board member Mya Wilkins, “is no surprises.”
The red ink was even noted by the search firms District 65 is considering, as the school system looks for a permanent replacement for Devon Horton as superintendent. (Assistant Superintendent Angel Turner is interim superintendent for academic 2023-24).
The board heard from four search companies on Monday night, on how each would find the best candidates.
When asked what challenges a new superintendent will face, Gloria Davis, of GR Recruiting, replied that one of the issues is the “hefty deficit.”
Three other search firms also made their best cases to be hired: HYA Associates, Alma Advisory Group, and the Illinois Association of School Boards (which has a school executive search group along with its other functions).
All four firms agreed on the significance of equity, reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students and involving the community in the search process.
There are cost differences. Least expensive is IASB, with an approximately $10-15,000 price tag. GR and HYA are at or near $25,000. Most costly is Alma, which charges 32% of the superintendent’s base salary. In Evanston, that would be about $84,000, according to Alma’s Monica Santana Rosen.
Board president Sergio Hernandez said he hopes the board will select a search firm within the next couple of weeks.
Hernandez also noted “my hope is that we can find somebody who can stick it out longer than 3-5 years” as superintendent, which, he noted, is the norm around the nation.
But, he said, the post-COVID reality of running a school system does not make longevity any easier.