There are many ways to measure a school district quantitatively. Student test scores. Average teacher compensation. Class size. Percentage of post-graduate education among teachers. Spending per student. Bonded indebtedness. The size of a school district’s financial reserve.
Assessing the success of a district, the effectiveness of its school board and administration requires a blended look at all of those measures as these and other metrics are inter-related. Over recent years, The Review has lauded this district for its educational innovation and ambition. We have praised the school board for its choice over the past two years to abate a portion of its reserve to lower the tax bills of Forest Park residents as it has sought levy increases lower than the maximum allowed by state tax cap laws.
That said, the district continues to have a large financial reserve – approximately $25 million – and as enrollment droops the district’s educational spending per student is rising notably. With a contested school board election coming up this spring these are issues which inevitably and rightly will come up for discussion.
We think the district, and school board candidates aligned with the current strategies, have a persuasive story to tell. After decades of accepting a status quo that was not moving this district forward, was not creating schools that would draw young families to Forest Park, was not dealing with the complex challenges of Forest Park’s racially mixed and fairly transient student population, this district has been reinventing itself and has spent tax dollars provided by residents via a 2004 referendum to aim high.
The change is seen in an overhauled curriculum, added student assessment tools, small class sizes, improved and expanded school facilities, the switch to grade centers rather than neighborhood schools and, coming in the fall, expansion of preschool services to all students.
That said, the rather startling drop in kindergarten and first grade class sizes this year — averaging a dozen students, the continued overly generous raises to teachers (when automatic step increases are included) add up to a cost of spending per pupil which puts middle class Forest Park into the upper echelon of spending among much ritzier and well-heeled communities.
We’re supportive of the district’s argument that the district is on the verge of being debt-free and having cash on hand to pay for a coming expansion at Betsy Ross School, for investing in new learning technology.
We get that district leaders defend the large reserve as necessary in the event the state legislature ever acts on pension reform and as part of that deal shifts teacher pension costs gradually back to local districts. We understand that point. We find it somewhat too convenient though considering the reserves were on the rise well before that pension concept gained currency.
Which brings us to this fundamental point. The way schools in Illinois are funded via property taxes set by referendum is odd, unfair and complicated. A district which passes a referendum is going to be awash in cash as the new money pours in after a referendum victory. That money is stashed, reserves rise until eventually cost increases lead to a tipping point where expenses outstrip school income and the reserve is gradually depleted. Then school systems must go back to voters to make their case as financial stewards and seek a new referendum. That is the tax cap system. Years back we railed against it as anti-education. Now we see its value. Going to referendum every 10 years is a sign the system is working.
Voters will need to decide this spring if District 91 is simply following the referendum pattern of accumulating cash followed by steady declines or if it is stockpiling too many taxpayer dollars. That’s why we have elections.