Forest Park’s public elementary schools will end the school year with a budget deficit of a little over $6.04 million. District 91’s school board approved that budget unanimously last week based in part on a healthy fund balance that would leave the district with $18.37 million even after the 2022-2023 fiscal year deficit.

The annual budget was adopted during the board’s Sept. 8 meeting. It has been adjusted from the preliminary version released during an Aug. 11 meeting. The district has a better sense of the economic indicators that will affect its property tax revenue, and the final budget includes some expenses that weren’t finalized a month ago. Most notably, the final budget sets aside $1 million to build two new STEAM lab learning spaces at Forest Park Middle School and Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School, both at 925 Beloit Ave., and $120,000 to hire and train the teachers that will use the spaces.

In a budget presentation during the budget hearing portion of the Sept. 8 board meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Finance Robert Hibbird said the district is expected to bring in around $22.55 million, while the budget calls for around $29.68 million in expenditures. However, the adopted budget indicates that, as of the start of the 2022-2023 school year, all district funds had a total of around $21.76 million. 

Hibbird said 67.9% of the budget will go directly to instruction-related functions, 24.4% will go into district operations and about 7.8% will go toward leadership functions at specific schools and throughout the district overall. 

He said the district spends around $28,000 to educate each student, well above the $18,000 state average.  He said that around $7.6 million will go toward “regular education, while about $2.3 million will go toward diverse learners — special education students and other students who require more specialized instruction. Preschools will garner $821,362 and $181,437 will go toward the early childhood education program. Support services including tutoring will get $759,905 while $128,331 will go toward mental health supports and $307,033 will go toward speech therapy.  Summer school costs are allocated at $202,807.

Hibbird also gave the breakdown of the major expenses. The district will hire two permanent substitute teachers at a cost of $153,000 while $90,000 is set aside for hiring a data manager — something that Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez said the district wanted to do last school year but wasn’t able to find the right candidate. 

“Last year, we were interviewing for our data strategist, couldn’t find the right person — we are now working on finding the right person to fill this position,” she said. “We just had a second round with the candidate this afternoon.”

Transportation and meal costs will run $175,000. With the closing of Grant-White Intermediate Elementary School, 147 Circle Ave., and moving its students to Field-Stevenson, the district started offering free school busing to everyone. Hibbird said that 27% of all students are currently taking advantage of it.

District 91 will spend $1.35 million on student outplacement tuition. When the public school district can’t accommodate the needs of students with disabilities, they send those students to more specialized special education schools, and they must cover the students’ tuition.  

The final budget incorporates the district’s plans for spending the schools’ share of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, the stimulus funding all schools got to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The board of education previously agreed to use the second and third round of funding to help pay for summer school, student tutoring and other support services, as well as replacing student Chromebooks, teacher laptops and other technology. 

Board president Kyra Tyler wondered how the district would replace the technology further down the line, without ESSER funding. Hibbird said they planned to replace equipment more gradually, so there would be less money to spend up front. 

STEAM labs at Field-Stevenson and Forest Park Middle School

But the most notable expenditure on the list is the construction of the two Science Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) labs. Hibbird told the board that the plan is to have one of those in each school, but that they were going to start with Field-Stevenson and Forest Park Middle School. The exact locations of the labs hadn’t been finalized at the time of the meeting, but he said the board will get this, along with other details, during the October meeting.

“We have ideas for both buildings,” Hibbird said. “I don’t want to [share that], because it’s not a done deal.”

Alvarez said that, broadly speaking the goal is not only to get students to do experiments and design concepts, but to work together. The idea is for kids to take ownership of what they create, whether it’s something they came up with on their own or as part of the group.

“I get really excited just knowing how hands-on it will be just for our children,” Alvarez said.

According to the presentation, in October, the district will form a curriculum committee to develop exactly how the labs will be used, with the goal of finalizing the details by the end of winter of 2023. The teachers would be hired in February 2023, with the goal of putting the labs to use by the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

Hibbird said the district would use money from the Operations and Maintenance Fund to build the labs, and potentially use ESSER funds to take care of the staffing. He said that the ESSER funds couldn’t be used for construction – though, in response to the board members’ questions, he said would double-check to make sure that was the case.

Alvarez said that, as a former science teacher, she was “very excited” to see the STEAM labs get off the ground.

“If we have the right curriculum for our children, if we have enough resources, we will open doors after they leave Forest Park [School District 91],” she said.