At a meeting early next week of the District 209 school board, members are expected to revisit a pair of significant issues that could dictate how its three public high schools operate in the coming year.

A budget proposal that includes some $14 million in deficit spending is up for approval, and board President Chris Welch will be looking for consensus on what to do about a vacancy in the district’s top office. The heavy lifting expected to come at the Sept. 24 meeting represents a crucial juncture for the often politicized body.

In a recent statement sent to members of the school board and local media, board member Theresa Kelly said District 209 is “the laughing stock of the Illinois educational system” and implored her colleagues to act responsibly, particularly in filling the vacant post.

Though the budget proposed for fiscal year 2008 is far from balanced, administrators offered that with a series of “painful” cuts, Proviso could see its first balanced ledger in a decade. Ending the fiscal year in the black could help restore the public’s trust in the board given its commitment last October to balance the budget in three years.

Upon reviewing the administration’s budget proposal last month, Welch noted the district hasn’t had a balanced budget since 1997.

“I think that deserves an applause,” Welch said of the proposal.

According to the budget pitched by administrators last month, the district is expecting some $66.5 million in revenues, but is facing $79.9 million in expenses.

Regardless of the budget appropriation, how that money is spent could be determined in large part by the superintendent, whoever that may be.

Less than a month ago the district accepted the resignation of former superintendent Stan Fields after the administrator spent several weeks on paid administrative leave for reasons that have not been made public. In 24 months the district has seen four superintendents, two of whom served on an interim basis.

Interim Superintendent Robert Libka represents the fifth change in leadership since August of 2005. Libka also served as an interim superintendent in the wake of Greg Jackson’s dismissal two years ago.

The decision to rehire Libka has drawn criticism from a budding advocacy group whose participants fear he will serve as a rubber stamp to political interests that have rankled the board. Bill Kirchner, a Forest Park resident organizing the group, said the district was plagued by wasteful spending under Libka’s previous tenure.

“My fear is they’re just going to appoint Bob Libka as superintendent and my fear is that our budget will go all to hell,” Kirchner said. “Under his guidance we have spent way too much money.”

Immediately after Fields’ resignation in late August, the district posted the vacancy on its website. In mid September the job was advertised in the Chicago Tribune and on Sept. 26 the vacancy will be listed in a nationally published education magazine, according to a school district spokesperson.

As of Sept. 14, two applications were received by the district.

Welch confirmed the school board will have the opportunity to take action with respect to the vacancy on Sept. 24, but said he’s not sure whether a hiring decision will be made.

“I think the first step is for the board of education to discuss what we want to do, collectively,” Welch said. “Once we decide what we want to do collectively, we’ll go from there.”

Welch asks for solidarity

Following a self-evaluation conducted with the help of a consultant from the Illinois Association of School Boards, elected officials at District 209 will be speaking with “one voice,” according to several board members.

The public relations strategy is meant to streamline communications between the school board, administrators and members of the public, board President Chris Welch said, and reduce the amount of in-fighting that takes place in full view of the public.

Welch will serve as the board’s spokesperson, primarily answering media questions on district policies and strategies. Questions on day-to-day operations will be referred to the district superintendent. The other six members of the board will not be discouraged from explaining the rationale for the votes they cast as individuals, Welch said, but will be asked to support those initiatives adopted by the majority.

“A board president is the spokesperson for the board of education,” Welch said. “Good boards of education speak with one voice.”

Jim Russell, a spokesperson for the IASB, said in no way should his organization’s advice be construed as a gag order to prevent individuals from expressing an opinion. However, board members must recognize that a fractured message will only undermine the credibility of the organization.

“It’s basically just a concept,” Russell said. “It’s not unlike working as a team.