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A three-member panel charged with guiding the fiscal strategies of the District 209 school board convened for the first time this month, lending credence to administrative efforts to stem the tide of red ink that threatens to drown the schools.

The financial oversight panel was created voluntarily in October by the Proviso Township high schools board. Chairman Jim Popernik and members Jim McEnroe and Craig Shilling were appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education. The three met formally on Jan. 7 to begin discussions on how they’ll work with the school board, and to review details of the district’s ledgers. They were joined by school board member Robert Cox and board President Chris Welch.

According to a spokeswoman for the district, the oversight panel will receive copies of the district’s monthly expenses prior to board meetings. They’ll have an opportunity to influence spending habits, but ultimately do not control how the money is managed.

“It is our job to use the money within the district to the best of our ability in order to provide our children with what they need to succeed,” District 209 board member Robin Foreman said in a written statement. “Everyone on the board is committed to that. The panel is a group of experts that will help us to succeed in fulfilling this invaluable commitment.”

Though voluntary, the panel is part of a larger, state-mandated effort to balance the budget in District 209. In October, the high schools were deemed to be in “financial difficulty” by the state and ordered to turn over a financial plan in December. That plan attempts to outline how the budget will be managed through fiscal year 2012.

State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch offered some analysis of the district’s financial strategy in a Dec. 17 memo to the state board.

“Although lacking in detail, the financial plan does reflect improvement,” Koch said in his memo. “Once the plan is approved, all of the district’s corresponding budgets, financial decisions and actions must align with the approved plan.”