No one used the “L”-word. That would be “layoffs.” But a grim budget projection for Evanston/Skokie School District 65 means budget reductions are coming. And with 80% of that budget going to staff salaries and benefits, some sort of personnel reduction seems inevitable.

The painful economic reality was presented to a special school board Finance Committee meeting this morning. While the current school year’s budget is balanced at $139 million, Business Manager Kathy Zalewski said that with expenses exceeding revenues, an operating deficit of nearly $4 million begins in Fiscal Year 2023, and gets bigger each year after that.

“If we want to make a difference and tackle our deficit,” Zalewski said, “unfortunately we have to look at our staff.”

The pandemic and politics are taking their toll. COVID-related expenses, for things like personal protective equipment, have added $1.5 million in costs this year. And lower revenues, including items such as child care fees, have reduced incoming dollars by $3.4 million. Those changes are already built in to the current fiscal year’s spending plan.

But Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi said the failure of the Illinois graduated tax ballot issue could cost District 65 $1.2 million in state aid this year.

No decisions were made today on employee reductions, or on other cuts either. There will be a community survey first, to find out what parents and taxpayers feel are the most important priorities.

Board member Joseph Hailpern said the district should first look at the “low hanging fruit” which would not impact instruction. Hailpern suggested staggered start times for schools, which would require fewer buses. A more difficult challenge might be closing some older schools which are expensive to maintain. “We know we have buildings which leak every time it rains,” Hailpern said.

Board members meet next on Dec. 9, but stressed they would rather get these decisions done right than done quickly, so there is no timetable yet. Public input is critical.

But there is little doubt that potentially painful and unpopular actions will be coming. Board Member Biz Lindsay-Ryan put it this way: “It’s going to feel like all the choices are bad. Something has to change. We have to make cuts.”

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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