Some serious budget cutting over the past couple of years is starting to pay off for Proviso Township High School District 209. It cut an operating deficit that had ballooned to $14 million in 2007 down to $981,000 in 2009 and now the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has recognized its efforts and has removed District 209 from its financial watch list.

Every year the ISBE examines the financial numbers of every school district in Illinois. It crunches the numbers, applies a formula, comes up with a score and a financial rating. The ISBE has four ratings for financial strength: recognition is the highest, then comes review, followed by early warning and, worst of all, watch. After examining Proviso’s 2009 numbers the state bumped District 209 up to the review category from the watch list.

“It is good news, it shows progress toward getting control of their finances” said Jim Popernik, the chairman of the state financial oversight panel that was created in December 2008 to oversee the district’s finances. Proviso is just one of three school districts in the state that is overseen by a financial oversight panel.

Proviso is in some ways ahead of other school districts because they have been cutting spending for awhile now.

“Proviso has been making cuts for the last few years so they’re not in as bad a shape as a lot of other people,” Popernik said.

In 2008 District’s 209 operating deficit was still $7 million. But the district instituted a variety of cuts. It eliminated 15 central office positions including two assistant principals, 11directors, one assistant director and one manager as well as eliminating 13 secretarial or other office support positions according to TaQuoya Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the district.

The district eliminated 37 other support positions and cut 15 operations and management positions. Among the positions eliminated were 10 part time teachers’ aides, five 12-month secretaries, seven full time security workers and two teen pregnancy counselors.

It eliminated alternative programs for 18 and 19 year old students closed the district print shop, reduced overtime and eliminated some software contracts, reduced the food budget and made a host of other cuts, including elimination of almost $500,000 in service contracts.

“The district has greatly improved its finances and is no longer on financial watch,” said Deb Vespa the ISBE Division Administrator who is working with District 209.

However the district will still be under state supervision for at least two more years and is not out of the financial woods yet.

“We’re still monitoring the school district,” Vespa said. “We need to continue to work on that deficit spending so they don’t erode those fund balances in the future. The financial oversight panel will be there until they can obtain balanced budgets.”

The district must continue to cut spending because it has exhausted its legal borrowing capacity Popernik said.

“They are in a condition where they can’t borrow money so that they have to have a balanced budget,” Popernik said. “They’re tapped out for another 20 to 25 years in terms of being able to borrow.”

The district faces tough times next year because of anticipated reductions in state aid and it recently announced that it was laying off 58 teachers. Still the ratings jump was good news for a district that has struggled with poor academic performance as well as financial issues for years.

“This took strong leadership from our board of education and it took collaboration from all our stakeholders,” said District 209 school board president Chris Welch. “So this is a cause for celebration.”