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Painting a grim picture of growing class sizes, maxed-out borrowing capacity and increasing oversight, District 209’s assistant superintendent outlined for the school board a financial plan mandated by the state that reaches into 2012. Though the goal of bringing the beleaguered school system into fiscal security carries some promise, administrators warned that in the coming years it will be increasingly difficult to make educational improvements with fewer resources.

“Let me be clear,” Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said at the meeting’s conclusion. “This will be an uphill battle more than ever.”

The Dec. 4 discussion saw no action from the board and was held strictly to review the budget plan. District 209 has been categorized by the Illinois State Board of Education as a school system in “financial distress,” which requires that the state receive a multiyear financial plan to help oversee local spending.

In the coming years, Collins-Hart said, she will turn a portion of the budgeting process over to building principals and department heads. A series of committees within each of Proviso’s three campuses will craft a budget that is specific to their department, giving those with day-to-day oversight more control over where cuts are made.

Every committee will be forced to cut their budget by an assigned percentage.

The ratio of students to teachers will also be examined, according to the plan, and it’s likely that some class sizes will increase.

“Through a student-teacher ratio analysis, building principals will have the flexibility to staff classes at varying levels depending on need, however, no additional allocations will be granted beyond the set ratio,” the plan states, in part. “This will likely result in some disciplines with high class sizes.”

In some respects, the extensive cuts are necessary because Proviso’s high schools are not in a position to borrow additional money. According to the assistant superintendent of accounts and finance, Nikita Johnson, the district is already surviving on borrowed cash.

A change in state law will also benefit the district’s financial standing. Certain expenses that have been collected as part of the education fund will now be levied in a separate fund, called tort. This fund will cover legal expenses and insurance payments, and will no longer be included as part of the overall operating budget. This means that the state, in determining whether District 209 is balancing its operating budget, will not examine these expenses.

Moving those expenses into the tort fund will effectively erase more than $1.6 million from the books, according to Johnson.