An almost $14 million swing in Proviso Township High School District 209’s annual deficits is an amazing improvement that rightfully earned brief applause during a recent public discussion of the schools’ finances. The district isn’t out of the woods yet – far from it in many ways, actually – but pulling these schools from the brink of financial collapse would be a great accomplishment.

Over the years, this newspaper has been rightfully critical of how District 209 functions. It is a failed school district. That’s why the state is so involved with its budget. But with one year of guidance from the oversight panel that was installed by the state, Proviso has seen some tangible improvements. One of the hallmarks came in using a bid process to select an insurance broker. That move alone will save an estimated $400,000, and that’s without altering anyone’s benefits. For years, this contract was handed to political insiders with very real and very tangible connections to school board members. For the sake of the taxpayers and the students who rely on these schools, the oversight panel needs to be here for more than the minimum three years required by Illinois law.

In the bigger picture, the reason schools exist is not simply to prove they can be managed without running annual deficits in the millions. The bigger picture, of course, is education. And just because the finances are under control – assuming continued progress – does not mean that a strong learning environment exists. In the process of getting its books in order, the district is making substantial cuts to its curriculum, its staffing and other resources that have a direct impact on what happens in the classroom.

The next big test for the district will be negotiating new contracts with its teachers and support staff unions. Both deals expire June 30.

The district and the oversight panel cannot afford to hand out any more taxpayer dollars during these negotiations. Union members must be ready to accept a salary freeze. Read that again: No pay increases. Annual raises are not being given in the private sector and should not be in the public sector. It is really that simple.