It will only save about $26,000, but a decision by Evanston/Skokie School District 65 not to renew a consultant’s contract may be the tip of a financial budget-cutting iceberg.

The Pre-K-through-8th grade system finished Fiscal 2023 with a $7.5 million deficit, and the projected surplus for Fiscal 2024 shrunk by nearly half-a-million-dollars to a relatively paltry $276,000.

With that background, the district administration is reversing its previous decision to continue the contract for Thought Exchange. Thought Exchange is on online survey platform which the school system used to gather public feedback on district priorities and also on the 5th Ward School, starting in 2021.

A Thought Exchange page from a previous District 65 Student Assignment Planning document.

In a report to the school board’s Curriculum and Policy Committee on Monday, Chief Communications Officer Melissa Messinger said that the decision to not renew the contract is being done “in an effort to reduce costs and contractual obligations.”

In an email to Evanston Now, Messinger said that “I believe we can find more cost effective ways to engage our community” to get a sense of public opinion to aid in decision making.

While $26,000 out of a $172.4 million budget is just a tiny fraction of a drop in the bucket, you can expect more and potentially bigger drops in the future, as D65 looks to save money.

In a previous meeting, Finance Chair Joey Hailpern said, “Maybe we need to say goodbye to X,Y,Z consultants.”

Hailpern noted “we need to protect children … and everything else is negotiable.”

Part of that “everything else” may involve summer school as well as transportation.

In Monday’s committee meeting, Interim Superintendent Angel Turner noted that one outside provider of summer programming has asked the district to pay for a program which had previously been provided for free.

While there is no doubt of summer school’s importance, Turner said D65 needs to ask “are we getting a return on our investment … and we will be changing our analysis and thought process moving forward.”

Turner also mentioned another way to potentially reduce summer school expenses, in a way most people probably never realize.

The time frame for summer school has often led to costly overtime to clean the buildings, Turner explained.

Changing the schedule somewhat could reduce those OT costs, but the downside also might reduce the amount of summer instructional time that students receive.

It’s a balancing act, but one which will be seen more often in making decisions on saving money

“We have to assess all of the aspects. It’s something we’re going to have to do,” Turner added.

Another area getting a closer look is transportation, which has been a significant driver, so to speak, of increased expenses.

District 65 currently contracts with a main school bus provider (Positive Connections), and also uses a taxi company in certain cases.

Assistant Superintendent Terrance Little told the committee that his office has talked with two other bus companies and two other cab companies, to see if there are less expensive ways to provide a costly service whose costs keep going up.

“We’re trying to figure out what can we absorb, and how can we change things,” Little said.

Board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan wondered if there might be some “out of the box ideas,” such as a paid bus driver training program, similar to the district’s teacher residency, where future teachers learn on the job at D65 while getting a master’s degree, and then are given a full-time position with D65 after graduation.

Little said that wouldn’t really work, as Positive Connections already has a sign-on bonus for drivers. But demand for bus operators is so high that many drivers leave for higher paying contractors or districts after being trained.

Little said a better way to cut costs is by consolidating or reducing routes, thus requiring fewer buses and drivers.

District 65 is counting on significant transportation savings once the 5th Ward School opens, as new attendance boundaries are supposed to make it possible for most students to walk to school, district-wide.

However, the 5th Ward building is not supposed to be ready until the 2025-26, so transportation costs will keep climbing unless savings can be found somehow.

Evanston Township High School is not facing the same financial challenges as District 65.

However, even some contracts that were almost automatically renewed without question are getting a closer look.

At the D202 board meeting Monday, the executive director of Evanston Cradle2Career, Blake Noel, outlined what the group does to promote social change, workforce development and better education outcomes. Cradle’s hope is that the school board will restore the district’s annual $50,000 payment to the agency.

That payment was yanked several weeks ago, after board member Gretchen Livingston questioned if the district, and the taxpayers, are truly getting their money’s worth.

While $50,000 is also a tiny fraction of District 202’s budget, Livingston noted that $50K a year over the dozen years it’s been paid is $600,000. A lot of money.

“I had concerns then and continue to have concerns as I sit here today about how that money has been spent,” Livingston said.

The D202 board will review whatever additional documentation Cradle may provide, as well as responses to questions, and then, Livingston said, “We’ll have to determine our next steps.”

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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