With some 80 township residents watching, District 209 high school board members reviewed a budget proposal for the new fiscal year that could bring a small surplus at year’s end, but only if they can agree to roughly $14 million in budget cuts.

The notion that a balanced budget may be within reach for the Proviso Township High School District is remarkable given the last decade of deficit spending that had the ledger books swimming in red ink. Business Manager Nikita Johnson warned that getting back to the black, however, will mean stripping away literally hundreds of department head requests and looking for additional grant money.

“Any cuts that we make are going to be painful,” Johnson said. “We’ve been in the red for quite some time. It would be a great accomplishment for this board and this district if we can finish in the black.”

The school board is expected to vote on the fiscal year 2008 budget on Sept. 24. Members of the public can view copies of the proposal and make comments on the document until that time. The budget can be viewed at public libraries and on the district’s website.

According to Johnson, some $66.5 million in revenues are expected over the next fiscal year. After administrators made their first round of cuts, projected expenses came in at $79.9 million. To bring expenses to within $1 million of anticipated revenues, Johnson laid out a series of line items where money can be saved. Should the board follow these recommendations, Johnson said the budget has $1.5 million in contingency funds that would cover the excess.

Several areas of proposed cuts drew immediate scrutiny from board members, particularly those that could impact safety and security. Administrators are proposing that police officers typically retained under contract for security details be phased out and used on an as-needed basis only.

Board member Brian Cross said it’s difficult to predict when an officer might be needed. Sue Henry, board secretary, said teenagers will recognize the absence of armed security at the schools and take advantage of the situation.

“If they see there are no officers with guns, they bring theirs,” Henry said.

Other areas for proposed cutbacks include $1.2 million in staff reductions, $7.2 million in vendor contracts, supplies and capital outlay projects and a reduction in the amount of approved overtime by half, bringing that figure to $299,800.

Dozens of area residents, parents, employees and even students attended the Aug. 20 meeting and applauded the possibility of a balanced budget. The unusually large crowd was not brought out by the budget talks, though, and was there to remind the board of its responsibility to address the dismal academic and financial status of Dist. 209.

According to members of the audience, the recent suspension of Superintendent Stan Fields was shocking and brought many of those concerns to a head.

“Unless there is a legitimate reason to dismiss Dr. Fields at this time, I would suggest that you stop the revolving door,” Larry Howard, of Westchester, said.

Fields was placed on paid administrative leave at the end of July for reasons that have not yet been disclosed publicly. Board members met in executive session for two hours Monday, in part to discuss any basis for seeking Fields’ termination, but were not able to come to an agreement. Another meeting was scheduled for Aug. 27 strictly for the purpose of discussing the superintendent’s future with the district.

Fields was hired in August of 2006, roughly one year after former superintendent Greg Jackson was terminated.

Howard was one of almost a dozen people to address the board at the start of the meeting. Many of those who spoke also attended an Aug. 8 gathering of township residents interested in forming a watchdog group.

“We’ve heard your concerns, we’re hearing your concerns, and we’re very sensitive to your concerns,” school board President Chris Welch said. “I want to thank you for coming to voice your concerns.”

Welch reiterated that school board members are prohibited from discussing personnel matters in public and cannot respond directly to questions regarding the superintendent’s suspension. He also stressed that the decision in late July to disband a group of volunteers laying the groundwork for a fundraising organization was done in the interest of including more people in that process.

“We ask that you respect our roles as board members and we’ll respect your roles as community members,” Welch said.