After applauding the notion of a balanced budget last month, District 209 school board members approved a spending plan this week that could leave the schools with an $11.3 million deficit.

Administrators handed board members a fiscal year 2008 budget proposal in late August that carried $14 million in deficit spending. At the time, Business Manager Nikita Johnson stressed that it was possible to end the year with a positive fund balance, but a combination of deep cuts and grant revenues would be needed.

Since that spending plan was brought forward, roughly $4 million in spending was whittled from the proposal and the board voted at its Sept. 24 meeting to adopt a budget with $10.9 million worth of deficit spending across its operating funds. Across all funds, Johnson said, District 209’s total deficit could reach $11.3 million.

“This budget has been an ongoing process,” board President Chris Welch said. “I don’t think any of us here on the board like the budget.”

For accounting purposes with the state, District 209 will report an anticipated deficit of $10.9 million. However, Johnson said there are several factors that could reduce the deficit to less than $5 million by year’s end.

Roughly $2.3 million in grants are expected to subsidize salaries and other expenses. Salary reductions will result in another $3.9 million in savings. A district-wide furlough is being considered and roughly $250,000 in contracted services could go on the chopping block, Johnson said. All of those items, paired with $2.5 million in contingency funds to help bail out the operating budget, could further reduce the deficit to roughly $4.4 million.

District 209 is expecting to receive some $66 million in revenues over the new fiscal year. Projected expenses are listed at $77.3 million.

Several township residents addressed the spending plan, commenting on what they described as misplaced priorities. A district freshman said the large class sizes at Proviso high schools detract from the learning environment and another woman pleaded for more teachers to be hired.

Westchester resident Kevin McDermott described the budget as “irresponsible or simply fiction,” and called on school officials to reveal line item purchases. In the spending category of “other,” McDermott pointed to more than $1 million in projected expenses.

“Anything that was large enough to be recognized needs to be itemized,” McDermott said.

Bill Kirchner, of Forest Park, said special education spending is astronomical and suggested students are being “over identified.” He also said the board is sending the wrong message in cutting teachers’ salaries while leaving vendor contracts virtually untouched.

“This board needs to reallocate its expenses,” Kirchner said. “It’s spending the money in the wrong places.”

Also at the Sept. 24 meeting, board members voted 6-1 to hire Robert Libka as the district’s new superintendent. Libka has been serving in an interim role under a 60 day contract that was approved in August following the resignation of former superintendent Stan Fields.

Board member Theresa Kelly voted against hiring Libka and in a scathing statement released prior to the board meeting, Kelly blasted both Libka and Welch for poor leadership.

“I do not subscribe to the thoughts of suppressing information, patronage hiring and improprieties that have plagued Chris Welch’s presidency and your tenure as interim superintendent,” Kelly said in a written statement.

Libka was hired on a one-year contract for $160,000.

Though Libka has served in a handful of administrative roles for the district in recent years, this is the first time he has held the superintendent’s seat outright.