Evanston/Skokie School District 65 officials to consider asking taxpayers for more money

Lee V. Gaines
Pioneer Press
The Evanston/Skokie District 65 Board of Education is slated to vote at a special meeting in January on whether or not to ask voters to approve a $14.5 million operating referendum.

The referendum question has been a topic of discussion at multiple board meetings over the last several months as administrators and elected officials grapple with how to tackle a projected deficit totaling over $100 million by the 2024-2025 school year.

The school board's finance committee voted unanimously at a meeting earlier this month to recommend the full board put the referendum question on the April 2017 ballot.

The issue is scheduled to come before the full school board at the Jan. 10 meeting.

District officials have repeatedly said the deficit stems from increases in enrollment over the past decade, rising costs and only small increases in the amount of property tax revenue districts are legally allowed to collect.

"A major component of why we're here is structurally we've brought in new students and new families to our district... and on average we spend $14,000 per student and we do not get commensurate income for each of those students," said School District 65 board of education President Candance Chow.

Without a successful referendum, the district faces "deep deficits and staggering reductions" in the coming years, said Supt. Paul Goren.

Goren presented school board members with three possible referendum options, including one asking tax payers for $13.5 and another one calling for $15.5 million before recommending the $14.5 million figure.

The average property owner in Evanston shelled out roughly $8,000 in property taxes this year and that figure would increase by about $470 annually if the proposed $14.5 million operating referendum is accepted, according to district officials.

If approved by the board next month and by voters in April, the proposed operating referendum would generate nearly $136 million of additional revenue for the district between next school year and the 2024-2025 one, officials estimate. The new revenue would offset a projected $114 million deficit over the eight-year period and leave the district with $21.1 million to invest elsewhere, they explained.

Goren said the district also plans to cut $3.2 million in central office expenses over the same period, which means the district is expected have a total of $24.4 million left over.

District officials plan to use the funds to invest in their schools' fund balance, Goren said. Financial advisors generally recommend districts maintain between 25 percent and 40 percent of their yearly operating budgets in a reserve fund. Goren said District 65's reserves, at present, total only about 19 percent of the district's operating budget. Underfunded reserves typically drive up a district's borrowing rates, he said. Investing $1 million per year over the next years will maintain the current funding level, according to Goren.

If the school board doesn't approve putting the referendum on the ballot, or if taxpayers vote it down, Goren said the district would be forced to cut $8.8 million in expenses over the next two school years and even more in the years following.

The cuts would result in the loss of between 50 and 60 full-time positions across the district, increases in class sizes, reductions to curriculum and enrichment programs, potentially the closing of school buildings, creation of multi-grade classrooms, district-wide home school reassignment and charging families who don't qualify for free or reduced lunch tuition for the second half of the kindergarten day, school district officials said.

Meanwhile, district officials said they'll work on back up reduction plans.

Lee V. Gaines is a freelancer.

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