Seven months after the state assembled a trio of school finance experts to watch over Proviso Township’s high schools, at least one member of the school board is becoming impatient with the process and suggested they are fully capable of managing the district’s money.
During a July 14 meeting of the District 209 school board, member Robin Foreman pointed to reductions in the schools’ deficit as proof of a healthy and independent board. Two years ago, the district incurred a deficit of $14 million. That figure was cut in half the following year.
Board members are poised to approve a budget next month for the coming school year, and that plan has a built-in operating deficit of $2.9 million, according to a preliminary proposal. Across all funds, the district’s deficit would be $1.95 million.
“We did that on our own,” Foreman said. “It seems like we’ve been doing pretty good on our own.”
Foreman’s remarks were directed at Jim Popernik, chairman of the state financial oversight panel charged with bringing stability to District 209’s ledger. Popernik gave a brief progress report in which he reminded the district that, by law, the oversight panel will hold the purse strings for at least three years. That timeline could be extended to 10 years.
In November, the school board petitioned the Illinois State Board of Education to put together an oversight panel. For years, Proviso’s high schools have been on the state’s financial watch list. In 2008, the district issued another $15 million in working cash bonds to cover routine expenses, such as payroll. The job of the panel, in collaboration with the school district, is ultimately to prevent the state from declaring the high schools a financial wasteland and assuming all authority.
After meeting with the board, Popernik said he was a bit surprised by some of the comments.
“Now that they’re in it, some of them want to get out from under it,” Popernik said of the oversight process.
According to Popernik, there are 370 public school districts in Illinois – five of them are working with financial oversight panels.
“You have taken over without the state taking over,” Foreman said of the panel’s role.
Board President Chris Welch stepped into the back-and-forth and asked Popernik whether the district can somehow accelerate the process of remedying District 209’s finances. Popernik responded that he was unsure. He cautioned that administrators have been forced to make drastic cuts and that they aren’t yet out of the woods.
“You’re going to get to the bone pretty quick,” Popernik said of continued budget cuts.
Of major significance, he said, is the annual change in the Consumer Price Index, used to cap the flow of tax dollars coming into the district’s coffers. That growth is expected to be about 0.1 percent, meaning that a massive reduction in tax revenue can be expected. By comparison, the annual growth in the Consumer Price Index stood at 4.1 percent this time last year.
Not all of the board members were critical of the role the panel has played. Theresa Kelly, who has attended many of the panel’s mid-afternoon meetings, said the group has made a number of positive changes.
“I just only wish we had you five, six years ago,” Kelly said.
Board member Kevin McDermott said it’s difficult for him and others to follow the work of the oversight panel because its meetings are typically held at 1 p.m. on weekdays.
The next meeting of the financial oversight panel is scheduled for Friday, July 24, at 1 p.m. A Sept. 28 meeting and Nov. 23 meeting both have 7 p.m. start times. Meetings are held in room 509 of the Proviso Math and Science Academy, 8601 Roosevelt.