If Sean Blaylock had his way, the public school curriculum in Forest Park would see a cash infusion over the next few years, partially for the obvious purpose of maximizing the time students spend in the classroom. But Blaylock, who serves as vice president of the District 91 school board, said pouring taxpayers’ money back into the classroom makes sense for other reasons as well.
The K-8 district has amassed what is arguably a sizeable reserve, administrators are pledging to boost student performance and steps are being taken to lessen the bleeding in the district’s only fund that has seen any recent deficit spending.
Also on this list, said Blaylock, is the district’s failure to shore up its classrooms.
“Traditionally, I think we have under spent on curriculum and instruction,” Blaylock said. “That’s a broad category but we’ve probably under invested there.”
The time for considering how best to use the district’s resources is fast approaching. With $4 million tucked away in its working cash fund and a heady list of recently adopted long-term goals on the table, school officials must decide how to fund the various initiatives. It’s likely that any reserves will be tapped for a portion of those projects, but differing philosophies on taxation will also come into play.
Business Manager Ed Brophy denied that District 91 has over taxed residents to establish its reserves, and said the working cash fund balance isn’t exorbitant. However, he agreed with Blaylock’s assessment that not enough money has been spent in the classrooms.
On a monthly basis the schools pay out roughly $1 million in payroll, utilities, insurance and other day-to-day costs. In the event of a catastrophe or should revenues be interrupted, Brophy said the schools would remain in session for only four months.
Barring these circumstances, Brophy agreed it might be possible for property owners to be given a rebate of sorts on their taxes if the district leaned on its working cash fund. However, the purpose of any savings account is to prepare for the unknown, Brophy said, so it’s difficult to predict whether he would recommend levying for less than what the district stands to collect.
“In Cook County, because your taxes typically come in late, one has to be mindful of that,” Brophy said. “It’s prudent to have the cash flow needed to operate so that you don’t have to issue Tax Anticipation Notes.”
Just three months ago state lawmakers were haggling over whether to extend a tax cap and delayed the collection of property taxes. District 91 was able to avoid borrowing money in the form of Tax Anticipation Notes because of its reserves.
An alternative to collecting less overall revenue from residents is to change how that money is allocated. Each year when the district sets its estimated levy, that total is broken down into separate funds. Transportation, working cash, debt payments and education are only a few examples of the line items for which specific amounts have to levied. By collecting less money for its reserve account, District 91 can allocate a greater percentage of its revenues for other budget items, such as books and new teaching positions.
But with falling interest rates minimizing the return on its working cash fund, Brophy made no cuts to this budget item in his recent levy proposal that was approved by the board. Instead, huge chunks were taken from the retirement and social security funds, compared to years past, and applied to the maintenance fund where there’s been a deficit for several years.
In recent years the schools have given taxpayers a break by not collecting as much as they could have under the state formula. In the wake of the April 2004 referendum the district levied for only $10.6 million out of a potential $12.3 million that was available without a special hearing. Another $1.3 million in taxes were collected for the 2004 tax year to pay down debts, but that figure is set by the county, not the school district.
In the summer of 2006, District 91 left more than $300,000 on the table.
Though Brophy wasn’t with the district when those taxing decisions were made, it’s logical, he said, to assume that the schools didn’t want to hit taxpayers with the full brunt of the referendum. Though more money was collected as a result of the referendum, school officials essentially gave property owners a discount on their bill in 2004 and 2005.
Mary Turek, a newcomer to the school board elected earlier this year, said she’s leaning largely on administrators to guide her decisions on the district’s finances. However, Turek said residents have a right to set high expectations for District 91 because it is a relatively small school system with considerable resources. Though the board’s commitment to small class sizes is expensive, projections call for enrollment to drop in the coming years. Gains in student achievement need to follow, said Turek.
“We’re really not in the banking business to make money,” Turek said.
Board President Glenn Garlisch used the term “judicious” in explaining how the $4 million should be applied to the district’s goals. Pillaging the reserve fund could create a deficit, he said, pointing to the operations and maintenance fund, which historically finishes some $500,000 in the red each year, as an example of potential future pitfalls.
“I’m comfortable with what’s there,” Garlisch said. “I don’t feel like we’ve got all this money and we should start spending it. I don’t want to go for another referendum in four or five years.”