In an era when Illinois schools are struggling to pay the bills, Forest Park District 91 is one of the only districts in the country that has actually returned money to taxpayers. This fall and again last month, the school board voted to abate a total of $1.5 million to the taxpayers of Forest Park by paying off debts early, abstaining from levying for debt service and zeroing-out the debt-service funds.
But in a five-year stretch with shrinking enrollment, D91 has become one of the districts with the highest per-student expenditures in the state, on both instructional and institutional costs.
Enrollment has fallen by about 10 percent from 890 students in 2008 to 814 this year. But instructional costs for 82 teachers have risen in the same period by around 15 percent to more than $9,000 per pupil from $7,829 in fiscal year 2009. Administrative costs also increased by roughly 16 percent, from a total of $900,937 with benefits of $183,910 in 2008-9 to $1,047,566 with benefits totaling $284,147. During the boom years, ending in 2005, the district had almost 1,000 pupils.
Additionally, D91 has a current reserve fund of some $25 million as of Dec. 31, 2011, according to Ed Brophy, assistant superintendent/financial officer. That amount represents 16.5 months of district expenses.
Is the school district too rich?
No, just fiscally prudent, said Brophy. That pile of money could go away quickly, he said, depending on how statewide pension reform plays out and whether some or all pension costs for past and present employees shift back to local school districts. Also, the Illinois State Board of Education has threatened to cut back “flat-grant” funding, such as Early Childhood Block Grants for certain districts — likely those who are “fiscally responsible, like us,” Brophy said.
In five years, the projected reserve shrinks to $14.5 million, or 8.8 months of expenses, assuming the district covers a full pension obligation and receives no flat-grant funding, he said.
“The board voted to be fiscally cautious in order to anticipate some of the upcoming changes in funding for education in the state of Illinois,” said Superintendent Lou Cavallo.
Although D91 lost some teachers over the past five years through attrition, no teachers have been laid off in reduction-in-force (RIF) decisions recently despite declines in enrollment.
Meanwhile the district has spent the last five years on an improvement track. Brophy blamed one-time expenditures such as new curricular materials, professional development for staff to learn how to use the MAP assessment, and professional services required by Independent Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities as the things that have driven up the instructional expenditures. He noted that teachers have traditionally received raises around 4 percent (the union negotiated a raise of 3.75 percent this year), and in four years that adds up to around 16 percent.
Per-pupil teaching costs have risen dramatically in Forest Park — due to declining enrollment. According to the Illinois Interactive Report Card (IIRC), even though Forest Park teachers earn an average of $58,837, Forest Park was 11th highest in the state for per-student instructional costs in 2009 — lower only than wealthy communities such as Park Ridge, Hinsdale, Rosemont, Lincolnwood, Glencoe and Kenilworth where teachers average salaries over $70,000.
Brophy said when the district went to a “grade center” model, staffing became more flexible. “Every year the superintendent looks at current enrollment and tells the principals how many teachers they will be allotted for the current year,” Brophy said. “With the move to grade level centers, balancing classes and staffing accordingly is more efficient.” Brophy said students didn’t have to move to another school if, for example, first grade at a school dropped to below 10 students. Brophy added that the district’s classrooms are small and that the public has indicated that class sizes over 20 students are not what parents want.
Nonetheless, according to the IIRC, Forest Park’s first grade and kindergarten class sizes averaged 11 or 12 students in 2012. Other grades had more students.
As far as operational costs, D91 has spent money updating and remodeling all five of its schools, with a proposed addition to Betsy Ross School next year.
With shrinking enrollment, that brought the per-pupil operating expenses in 2012 to $17, 255 — one of the highest in the state.
In wealthy neighboring River Forest, Director of District 90 Finance and Facilities, Anthony Cozzi, says that D90 has 1,326 students. As of June 30, their operating cost per student is $13,639. He said a $23 million fund balance is projected for 2017, the last year of their five-year plan.
But even with higher-than-average operational costs, D91 still lacks many of the amenities, such as electronic whiteboards and student tablet devices found in wealthier school districts that spend as much money, or less, per pupil.
How does the district keep on track? D91compares itself to other “medium”-sized school districts in the region, based on student population and equalized assessed value (EAV) of local properties.
According to Brophy, when D91 was looking at relative teacher compensation, it compared itself to districts in Hillside, LaGrange Highlands, Franklin Park, Norridge and Schiller Park. According to the IIRC, Forest Park in 2009 had significantly higher instructional and operating expenditures per pupil than any of these neighbor districts — around 14 percent higher than the next-highest district for operational expenses and 6 percent more teacher expenses per pupil.
Shrinking enrollment has no easy answers. There are fewer school-age children in Forest Park in the past five years, according to Cavallo.
“It’s happening all over Cook County,” he added.
According to U.S. Census counts in 2000 and 2010, the village advanced to an average age of 39.1 in 2010 from 35.7 in 2000.
The district has considered, and rejected, consolidating buildings, from five schools to four, Brophy said.
“There is not one building in the district that could accommodate all of the students from another building. Most of our schools were built at a time when classrooms were built very small,” he said.
“Squeezing in more desks would not be the best environment. It would likely require some construction,” he added.
Perhaps in response to these smaller class sizes, the district will open a universal public half-day preschool next year with existing staff, the school board heard last month. This will bring new students into the system and more efficiently use early-childhood teachers.
The district’s reserve amounts has been mentioned by school board candidate Brian Moritz (husband of Village Clerk Vanessa Moritz) as a campaign issue.
“Our reserve has come to the attention of the public,” Cavallo noted at the January board meeting.
But both Cavallo and Brophy said the school board has voted consistently to levy less than permissible by state law. The district could, in November 2012, have levied up to 3 percent, they said, but chose to only capture 1.5 percent.
“The public schools are always the largest portion of a tax bill, but our abatements are causing that portion to be less than it could have been. People don’t get a check; they get a lower tax bill,” Cavallo said.
“By June 2014 this district will be debt-free. We have resources to build a [Betsy Ross] addition and make technology upgrades without needing to go to referendum for 10 years,” Cavallo added.