H-F students performing ‘Almost, Maine’ this weekend

Faced with a $200,000 deficit – and that number possibly climbing to $1 million if there’s a severe state funding shortfall – Flossmoor School District 161 officials this week presented a long list of potential spending reductions for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

If all the potential reductions are approved by the Board of Education, District 161 would save more than $1.6 million, said Superintendent Craig Doster and Assistant Superintendent for Business Frances LaBella, who made a lengthy presentation at Monday’s committee of the whole meeting.

Doster and LaBella were quick to point out that they are not recommending the reductions to the school board. Doster said he asked LaBella and other members of his administrative team to look for areas where cuts could take place. LaBella analyzed District 161’s revenues and spending as compared to other K-8 school systems in suburban Cook County.

The potential reductions were classified along three levels. Level 1 reductions would not affect students in the classroom. Level 2 cuts would have some effect and Level 3 reductions would definitely have an impact on students.

Some popular programs are included in the list of possible cuts. Outdoor Education could be changed from a two night camping-style experience in Michigan to a day-long field trip at Irons Oaks Nature Center in Olympia Fields. Also, one full-time equivalent teaching position in the District 161 gifted program could be eliminated.

The biggest potential cuts could come in the district’s bus service. By cutting 13 bus routes, LaBella said, District 161 could save $369,000. There are currently 36 bus routes serving the district’s five schools.

Earlier in the evening, Doster recommended to the school board that the district renew its bus contract with Positive Connections. He asked that the board approve a contract with the carrier rather than going out to bids. Under the bidding process, he said, it is likely that all proposals from bus companies – including Positive Connections – would be higher.

Doster also recommended the consolidation of bus routes as a way to significantly cut costs in the district. The number of students on buses now varies between 17 and 52. For the buses to be most efficient, they should be as full as possible, he said. By consolidating the buses, however, travel time for students is likely to go up.

“We definitely need to hear from parents about this,” said Board Member Leah Bailey Langston. “I’m all for saving money but not on the backs of students.”

Doster asked that the board consider renewing the Positive Connections contract at its next meeting. He said it would probably take another couple of months to determine how bus routes might be consolidated.

During their presentation on reductions, LaBella said she is already concerned about the state’s ability to make payments to school districts. In December, she said, District 161 was to receive $470,000 in reimbursements, mostly for special education and transportation programs. The Illinois State Board of Education approved the vouchers but payment is being held up in the state comptroller’s office because there is apparently not enough money to cut a check. LaBella said it is likely that the district will not receive the reimbursements any earlier than June.

Doster said the presentation on reductions was prepared as part of this year’s budget process. The school board must approve a tentative budget by the end of June. A final budget must be presented to the state no later than September, LaBella said.

Board members spent some time Monday discussing the Outdoor Education program, which has been offered to fifth graders in the district for decades. In recent years students have gone on their Outdoor Education trip for two nights, as opposed to the five nights that was in place for many years. Outdoor Education has given students a chance to get up close and personal with nature, and to learn about a world they may never have seen before.

 Students must pay a tuition fee for the Outdoor Education trip; last year it was $237.

Changing the Outdoor Education program to an Irons Oaks field trip would save the district $26,162. LaBella said there are excess costs connected with the trip. A school nurse must accompany students and items like walkie-talkies and golf carts are needed.

Board member Timijanel Boyd Odom said saving money on Outdoor Education “is not worth taking away this experience.”

Doster said he has visited students on their Outdoor Education trip and he knows the value of the program.

“Do I think it’s great going to Michigan?” he asked. “You bet I do. You asked us to look at what can be done to save money in this district.”

Other potential reductions include:

  • Four teaching positions that would be eliminated through attrition, one at Flossmoor Hills School and three at Parker Junior High School, for a savings of $216,000.
  • One support person for district Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs, for a savings of $15,000.
  • Ongoing curriculum development as a budget line item, for a savings of $130,000.
  • A reduction in the workbook budget, for a savings of $20,000.
  • New instrument purchases for band and orchestra, for a savings of $10,000.
  • Two areas of special education spending, one totaling $106,000 and the other $74,000.
  • The elimination of four remedial education paraprofessionals for a total of $98,000.
  • The elimination of one full-time equivalent gifted education teacher, for a savings of $53,000.
  • The elimination of one social services position, for a savings of $72,000.
  • The elimination of one health services position, for a savings of $15,000.
  • The elimination of one psychology services position, for a savings of $61,000.
  • The elimination of one principal’s office staff person, for a savings of $48,000.
  • The elimination of one administrative assistant in the district administration office, for a savings of $66,000.

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