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D65 looks at classroom usage

The District 65 Evanston/Skokie finance committee doesn’t know whether the districts’ schools need more or less classroom space, but they do know they need to prepare for the future with a budget deficit on the horizon.

The committee received a preliminary report Monday night on the physical layout of each district school from the number of instruction classrooms to the number of music classrooms and how that space is being used during this school year.  In addition, the report supplied the square footage of each classroom.
"From my perspective, we have a deficit coming up.  I was looking at where we might have stress points in the system i.e. too many kids, too little kids, how we can better collapse or expand classes," said committee chairman Keith Terry.  
"At Willard, we know we have stress related issues there because we have too many kids in some classes.  Then when you go to other schools, you have some classes with 13 kids in them.  So to me that’s inefficient use."
This year, the district will have a $400,000 surplus, but starting next year they will face a deficit crisis unless costs are cut somewhere.
Mr. Terry said the district is projected to have a $1.1 million deficit next fiscal year and a $1.7 million deficit the following year.  Expenses have increased faster than the revenue, he said, because of new programs, transportation costs, and insurance costs.
"It just makes me uncomfortable that looking out into the future we have some years where we have a projection problem," Mr. Terry said.  "We need to try to be strategic in what we are going to do, how we can be more efficient in our expenses, and how we can increase revenue.  No one wants to cut programs and no one wants to cut teachers."
The district’s enrollment has declined by 11 percent over the last decade, according to this year’s Opening Schools Report, but according to Superintendent Hardy Murphy there hasn’t been a significant drop in enrollment at one specific school.
"As far as some of the space issues in the schools, everything is cyclical," said board member Mary Erickson.  "We’ve seen it where schools like Washington that have some classrooms that are 14 kids, there was a time when we just didn’t know how we were going to cram another child into that school.  You have to look at the big picture.  There’s waves."
Board member Mary Rita Luecke asked if the answer to the budget woes was closing a school.
"I think the real question that we’re all dancing around is do we have more schools than we need?" Ms. Luecke said.  "I know the impact of what that means, the impact would require the closing of a school.  I’m not taking a position, I’m just asking the question.  With 500 fewer students in the district over the last five years, that’s more than the population of two of our schools.  I think that’s really what the question is."
Board member Andrew Pigozzi said he doesn’t sense an urgency as the square footage per student in the district isn’t alarmingly high compared to the national average.
"At least I’m not hearing from anybody that this classroom is empty and the building is vacant," he said.  "I look at closing a school and redistricting as sort of a doomsday scenario.  I think having that additional space is a great thing to have.  It allows us to make adjustments.  Can we live with less?  I’m sure we could.  Is that a wise decision?"
Dr. Murphy said that he would like to see a district policy created that manages the distribution of students in the existing space.  He suggested developing a class size based on the square footage of a classroom, which would help identify the overcrowding that’s happening in some classrooms and address the small class sizes that’s happening in others.
"I personally don’t see the need to engage in any kind of massive building effort or any draconian kind of reduction," he said.
Another policy issue that will be discussed is the facilities that every school in the district should have whether it’s an auditorium, cafeteria, art room, or computer lab.
The next piece of the puzzle is to identify how many students are in each of the classrooms and what classrooms are not being utilized.  From here, the board will decide what if anything needs to be done to alleviate overcrowding or undercrowding and how that relates to the budget.
Also during Monday’s meeting, the finance committee voted to bring the Truth in Taxation tax levy before the full board.
Because the district is requesting a levy that is 5.3 percent over the 2006 extension, a hearing is required.
Every year the school board must determine as closely as possible, how much money it needs from taxes for the operation of schools in the next year.
If a district requests a levy of more than 5 percent over the prior year tax extension, a public hearing is required under the Truth in Taxation law, according to the district.
The levy process begins with the estimation of taxes required and culminates with the filing of a Certificate of Levy with the Cook County Clerk on or before the last Tuesday in December, according to the district.
The tentative estimated levy for 2007 will come before the board on Nov. 19 and at the Dec. 17 meeting the district will hold a public hearing on the levy.

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