A great deal of progress has been made in reducing the level of deficit spending that has plagued Proviso Township’s public high schools, according to a panel of state-appointed watchdogs, but the toughest challenge still remains.

During a Feb. 22 meeting of the financial oversight panel, charged by the state with forcing new efficiencies onto the district, chairman Jim Popernik said fiscal year 2011 will be the “worst yet.” That prediction goes for schools across the state, he said, and is a result of the national recession and the Illinois legislature’s staggering deficits.

Popernik’s remarks were echoed by other outside experts also keeping an eye on District 209’s finances, and hung like a dark cloud over noted progress. In 2009, the township high schools outspent their revenues by slightly less than $1 million, marking a dramatic swing from 2007 when the deficit exceeded $14 million.

“I think things are definitely improving in terms of the audited final numbers, and credit should be given to the board and administrators,” Popernik said.

Popernik and the oversight panel were installed about midway through that reduction in Proviso’s deficit, and have been meeting for little more than a year. The three-member panel has the final say in how money is spent by the district. Policy changes, contract language and other administrative functions also fall within its purview. The panel’s job is to bring financial stability to the district. Under state law, the group must work with the district for three years, but can remain in place for up to 10 years. It is one of the state board of education’s final measures before moving to take over a school system.

One of District 209’s primary responsibilities to the oversight panel is to annually submit a financial plan that details how it will save money. Another version of that document, which extends through fiscal year 2012, was approved by the oversight panel during the Feb. 22 meeting.

The oversight panel had asked the district to stipulate how it would keep its deficit for 2011 to less than $1.5 million. Instead, Proviso Township High School District 209 submitted a more aggressive plan with a projected deficit of $919,000. Nikita Johnson, assistant superintendent of accounts and finance, said the cushion is intended and may be needed to absorb several unknown factors.

Chief among those variables is the level of state funding the district can expect to receive. Also, student enrollment has grown over the previous two school years and district officials are projecting an additional 600 students will enroll next year.

Tim Cole, an accounting consultant hired by the oversight panel to work with District 209, noted that the high schools are projecting an increase in the amount of money it receives from the state. Though that projection is accurate when looking strictly at whether the district qualifies for the funding, Cole said the realities in Springfield can’t be ignored and “represents … a potential adverse risk to the district with respect to its plan.”

Deb Vespa is a financial administrator for the Illinois State Board of Education, and is working with District 209 and its oversight panel. Vespa also had concerns with the district’s projections for state funding, and cautioned that Proviso could even see a decrease.

“Flat funding is being optimistic,” Vespa said.

As for how student enrollment may impact staffing levels – and ultimately salary expenses – District 209 Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart said that is part of an ongoing discussion with the schools’ unions. Both the teachers union and support staff union contracts expire on June 30.