By Michael S. Hoey

Delavan-Darien School District Superintendent Robert Crist recommended April 14 the School Board make a second attempt at a referendum in August to exceed state revenue caps for operating expenses.

Voters defeated the district’s first attempt on April 1.

The failed referendum was for $2.1 million and was recurring, meaning the figure would be added to the district’s base for property taxes in future years. Crist said that appeared to be one of the biggest problems people had with the referendum and if a second one is attempted it might have to be a non-recurring referendum.

Crist said that would provide a short-term fix to the district’s financial problems, and the district might have to come back to the voters again in a few years with yet another referendum. The board hoped the recurring referendum would pass so it did not have to keep going back to voters.

The board met in closed session for three hours April 8 and then for another 30 minutes on April 14 in an attempt to finalize plans for how to meet the anticipated $2.5 million shortfall in the 2014-15 budget. Even if the referendum had passed, the district would have had to cut $400,000 from the budget, but Crist said he is confident that could have been accomplished without severe cuts to programs or staff.

Because the referendum failed, the district acted quickly to meet the April 15 deadline for issuing notices for non-renewals to teachers. After the April 8 meeting, Crist said the board is only looking at cutting staff, not programs. He also said changes to post-retirement benefits were possible.

On April 14 the board approved both measures – the layoff of 11.5 full-time equivalent teacher for next year and changes in benefits that Business Administrator Mark Powell said would save the district about half of the $33 million the district was obligated to pay over the next 30 years.

“We are on the line for $33 million, and we can’t sustain that,” Board member Joe Peyer said.

Board President Jeff Scherer said private sector businesses don’t offer post-retirement benefits like the district offers, but the district has to compete with other districts for good teachers and the board wants to be as fair as it can.

Crist said the district will save $1.55 million from the layoffs and some savings on equipment. The board also approved borrowing $1 million from the State Trust Fund as a way to fill the budget gap until it can be determined if another referendum can be passed. If it can, the money would not have to be borrowed.

“It is necessary to buy us some time to decide what to do,” Peyer said.

Board member Chad Kort said he is uncomfortable borrowing the money after the voters just said no to a referendum. He also said cutting 11.5 positions was necessary to make a budget but said the board would not stand for having 35 kids per classroom.

“That will not happen,” he said.

Crist said after the April 8 meeting that he believes the referendum failed because some people did not understand the need for it and others might have not wanted to add to their tax burden. Now that it failed, Crist said, anything, including restructuring or closing schools, would have to be on the table for discussion in the future.

“If we want to maintain what we have, we need resources,” he said. “We can’t continue to dig into our cash reserve.”

Five residents spoke at the April 14 meeting. George Kirkpatrick said he opposed the referendum in part because he believes the district already has one of the highest mill rates in the area and he does not want to see it go higher. He called the increase proposed by the referendum “excessive” and said he feels the voters were well informed about the need for the referendum and voted no anyway.

“What part of no do you not understand?” he asked about the possibility of another referendum in August.

Resident Ann Foster said she is concerned about how the proposals to fill the budget shortfall will affect the schools.

“We always talk about how important academics are and then we cut staff,” she said. “Cutting staff and increasing class sizes is not the way to go.”

Residents Berenice Solis, Edith Martinez and Sylvia Corral said they favor the referendum as investments in the district’s children. Solis and Corral encouraged parents who are concerned with how money is spent to get involved in the schools. Martinez said supporting the referendum is like supporting the future of the city.

“The fact still remains that we need extra revenue to continue our programs, “Crist said.

He then outlined many programs that are designed to get students ready for college and highlighted the district’s articulation program with Gateway Technical College. Crist recommended another referendum, this time non-recurring, in August.

Peyer said community members asked him and other board members to seek election so changes could be made to better the district. He said the community should trust the people they elected by a 90 percent margin to do their jobs.

Peyer also said he does not think everyone understood where the district is and where it wants to be. He said before serving on the board he probably would have voted no as well, but now knowing what goes into running a district, he now believes strict business tactics do not work in running school districts. He said he understands the need to keep a bottom line, he said passing a referendum is like saving the community.

“I think our schools and our city are worth saving,” he said.

Scherer agreed and said the state has done a good job controlling property taxes, but the effort has not been kind to school districts. He agreed another referendum is necessary.

“We are not going to be asking for the moon, but we need a little more,” he said.

Kort said he heard some in the community talk about eliminating “fluff” and he wanted to know what exactly the “fluff” was. He said 85 percent of the costs of running the district were in salaries and benefits, so it is unfortunate but necessary that the cuts be made there. As for cutting extracurricular activities, he said that would not be enough to solve the district’s problems.

Kort said there was an incredible sense of community support for the strategic plan when it was passed and the board is committed to following it. That costs money. He said if the board decides to ask for another referendum, it would be asking the community to fund the concepts it enthusiastically supported when the strategic plan was adopted.

Action on asking for another referendum was tabled until the May 12 meeting. Peyer said it is important to put a good plan together first. Board member Steve Logterman said the board needs more input from the public before deciding if another referendum is the way to go.

Other business

      The board received a report on the district’s progress toward implementing the state-required teacher effectiveness program for the 2014-15 school year. Logterman said the report is a perfect example of how school districts can’t be run like businesses because the state mandated the program without providing any funding for it.

Athletic Director Craig Lodahl was given authorization to move forward with withdrawing from the Southern Lakes Conference and joining the Rick Valley Conference in an effort to compete with schools of a more similar size. Lodahl said the process was likely to take two years.

Lodahl was also given authorization to partner with the city on providing district-owned kayaks for use on Lake Comus as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown. He was also given authorization to explore a requirement at the high school that students participate in at least one activity per semester.

The 2014-15 calendar was approved 6-1. Roxann Kelton opposed it because it asked teachers to work two extra days without compensation. A compromise was reached reducing that number to one but Kelton still voted no. Crist said the two days were seen as necessary for inservicing staff on the many new things they will be faced with in coming years like the teacher effectiveness program.


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