As the financial picture for Proviso Township High School District 209 worsened with news that a reserve account will likely be depleted by this time next year, school officials learned of a potential cash windfall that represents an astounding 10 percent of the district’s projected revenues for the year.

According to a report from Business Manager Nikita Johnson at the Nov. 19 board meeting, auditors found more than $6.9 million sitting unaccounted for in a bond fund. It was unclear exactly where the money came from or how long it has been there, but Superintendent Bob Libka said early indications from the auditors were that it may have been hidden by a few stray pen strokes.

“It’s an issue of just a proper journal entry rather than any missing money,” Libka said.

District administrators are optimistic that a more thorough auditing of the ledgers will reveal that a previously issued bond was paid with money from the operating funds. If that’s the case, the nearly $7 million boon may be cleared for the purpose of covering current day-to-day expenses.

Administrators were not immediately clear as to what expense the bond may have been used for or when it was issued.

“An excess fund balance in the bond and interest fund is unusual since the county clerk levies for this fund directly and the levy amount is equal to the amount of principal/interest payments due on outstanding bonds,” Johnson said in a memo to the board.

Such an influx would certainly help the struggling district with its fiscal year 2008 budget. In September, the school board approved a spending plan of $77.3 million despite revenue projections of roughly $66 million. Since then, unions have been asked to take pay cuts and the threat of layoffs looms large.

At the same board meeting, Libka and his staff received a green light to begin cutting members of the support staff, specifically secretaries and teaching aides. It’s unclear at this point how many positions will be cut, Libka said, or the potential savings.

Meanwhile, in a monthly financial report, Johnson outlined audit reports for the previous fiscal year revealing the public high schools bled more than $16.2 million. And for the first time in at least a decade the operating fund balance, which has been used to plug budget holes, is expected to show a deficit of $201,753, according to Johnson.

“As a result, it is even more urgent that cost reduction measures be implemented immediately,” Johnson said in a memo to board members.

The superintendent said he is not concerned that the $6.9 million was unaccounted for due to any malfeasance.

High schools nix public relations firm

A contract with a high-powered public relations firm that drew criticism from school watchdogs has been canceled, in part because the expense was too much for a school district attempting to tighten its financial belt, administrators said.

Danielle Ashley, the Chicago firm that has traded campaign checks with board President Chris Welch, was fired by District 209 at a Nov. 19 board meeting. Acting on the recommendation of Superintendent Bob Libka, board members voted to end the $10,000 per month relationship that was renewed in July.

uxCast, a firm hired last month to provide website and software services at $8,000 per month, was given the nod to do public relations work for the Proviso high schools for an additional $2,000 each month.

Though the contract with uxCast and Danielle Ashley overlapped for only one month, Libka touted the change as a $96,000 savings.

“Concerns had been raised about the money we were spending on contracts,” Libka said of the reasons for the switch. “On a secondary basis, we thought that uxCast could do a better job.”

– Josh Adams