After months of discussing the financial future of Evanston’s schools, the Finance Committee of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to recommend to the full board that it seek an operating referendum of $14.5 million in the upcoming April election.
The vote came after Superintendent Paul Goren delivered a lengthy summary of discussions held with the committee ever since the current year’s budget was balanced after extensive efforts were made to reduce costs without materially affecting the classroom.
But it was considered inevitable that the structural deficit caused by expenses that increase faster than the rise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) would allow property taxes to increase revenues under legislated tax caps would ultimately require a referendum to be submitted to the district’s voters for their approval.
Goren presented three options, plus a stern warning about the hazards of doing nothing, an option he plainly felt would be disastrous for the district.
The three referendum options he discussed were for $13.5 million, $14.5 million, and $15.5 million.
The $13.5 million option would enable the district to be deficit-free through 2025, would enable technology funding to be part of the operating budget, rather than as a capital expense, would ensure a reading specialist at each elementary school, and would provide an additional $6.8 million for capital improvements.
The $14.5 million option would also enable the district to expand its middle school technology program and would increase the amount available for capital improvements to $8.2 million.
The $15.5 million option would increase the amount available for capital improvements to $8.4 million and would enable the district to contribute an additional $8 million to its fund balance, which would increase that fund to an estimated 25 percent of budget by Fiscal Year 2025. Currently that fund is dipping below 20 percent, which the district’s financial advisors contend could result in a lowering of its bond rating.
The impact on the taxpayer whose estimated property taxes paid this year were $10,000, would amount to an additional $542 to $622 a year. The middle option would require an estimated $582 a year, Goren said.
But the worst option of all, in the superintendent’s view that is apparently shared by most board members, is trying to get by without a referendum.
To do that would require such draconian actions as increasing elementary school class size maximums, closing one or more schools, combining buildings to serve fewer grade levels, instituting multi-grade classrooms, and eliminating or charging families that do not qualify for free or reduced lunch for the second half of the kindergarten day.
On the other hand, a successful referendum, Goren predicted, would ensure small average class sizes, strengthening of the core curriculum across subjects, promote efforts to provide equitable outcomes for all students, provide intensive supports for striving students, enhance the social emotional learning and school climate, expand family supports and community partnerships, and provide essential technology for students and staff.
The next steps involve getting board approval for a referendum at its January 10 meeting and preparing “Plan B” deficit reduction strategies in the event that the referendum should fail.
The election on the referendum would be on April 4. From March through May, the district would notify staff of reductions if the referendum were to fail.
If the referendum passes, the additional funds would become available in Fiscal Year 2018, the superintendent noted.
Because the committee had discussed these options many times in the past, there was little discussion Monday night before it unanimously passed the motion to recommend the $14.5 million option.
Weighing on the minds of Board members was the fact that a referendum to provide for a new school in Evanstons’ Fifth Ward failed to pass in 2012.