Niles to propose teacher cuts ‘across the board’

Published 11:17 pm Monday, September 12, 2011

Niles Community Schools officials reviewed what seems to be a dismal financial outlook Monday, announcing they are looking into reducing teacher salaries “across the board.”
The board of education meeting took place while negotiations were ongoing at the Westside Administration Building. Board members went back into negotiations following the end of Monday night’s meeting.
Supt. Richard Weigel offered board members a financial presentation that highlighted what past reports had already made clear: the district’s expenditures are exceeding its revenues.
What’s being spent is outweighing what’s coming into the district by $2.9 million for the 2011-2012 school year. That puts the projected ending fund balance at 2.83 percent.
“The board has said they want (the fund balance at) 5 percent,” Weigel said during the presentation. “Five percent is nine days of average (operating) expenses. It’s not enough.”
Projecting into the future, should state allowances to school districts remain the same and the current situation remain unchanged, the district would face a $3.5 million deficit. By the 2013-2014 school year on the same scale, that deficit could be as much as $8.9 million.
Weigel outlined a $4.1 million loss of funds in the 2011-2012 year, funding that included revenue no longer available such as that of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Edu-jobs funds, federal grants and state reductions in funding; last year’s drop in enrollment; and higher retirement and insurance costs to teachers.
In response to those lost revenues, Weigel identified line items cut within the district in personnel, supplies and purchased services — cuts that amount to $1.5 million.
The frightfully dramatic projections are based on the current fiscal situation as is, but Weigel informed the board that things could get even worse.
“Today I got some bad news there’s a possibility we may be losing another $200 (in state funding) per student next year,” Weigel said.
That comment drew gasps from the attendants at the meeting, many of whom were teachers.
Not entirely a surprise, Weigel said the current financial crisis has been ongoing for some time.
But for the district to continue in its projected direction with no changes to expenditures, Weigel said, “we put ourselves in a very, very dangerous place.”
To further battle the loss, Weigel said new programs in the district, including the Niles New Tech Entrepreneurial Academy, all-day kindergarten options, home schooling and the WAY online learning program have brought preliminary enrollment figures up from last year. Doing so will help bring revenue into the district; an estimated $350,000 is coming into the Niles district through new Schools of Choice students this year, the report stated.
New Tech’s construction was completed through a sinking fund, which cannot be applied to salaries.
Still, Weigel said, with rising retirement costs for teachers and salaries and benefits accounting for 78 percent of the total school budget, “we must reduce total compensations costs across every employee group in a fair and equitable manner.”
The proposal has been put to the teachers’ union. How it works is teachers, who operate on a step program — which allows for an annual increase in salary — would see the top of the pay scale increase from 13 years to 25 years.
That would decrease the annual increase from 3 percent to 1.5 percent each year.
“We are proposing a cut in teacher salaries across the board,” Weigel said.
Following the presentation, school board President Jeff Curry stated the outline is the reality of what the district is facing.
“I certainly appreciate everyone’s thoughts and emotions on this. I have a wife who’s a teacher, a daughter who’s a teacher. I understand,” he said.
A number of comments followed the presentation.
One mother voiced her concerns over the 29-student class size in her son’s class at Ballard Elementary School.
In response, Weigel tried to quell those concerns citing research that showed it was “quality of instruction, not class size,” and said Niles had the best quality teachers.
That’s when things became contentious.
Niles attorney Christopher Lynch spoke out following Weigel’s response asking how he could claim the district had the best quality teachers while proposing to cut their salaries.
He also questioned whether or not the board was following the Open Meetings Act, saying at times meetings seem almost scripted.
“It’s almost like it’s a staged deal,” he said. “We don’t want that.”
He expressed concern that no member of the board had any questions or began any discussion about the presentation once it was over.
“I ask you please, please have a robust and open discussion,” Lynch said.
Lynch’s wife is vice president of the teachers’ union.
“I don’t disagree with you at all; I think we have to have a very transparent process,” Curry said. He added the board plans to get more information out to the public.
“We’re at the precipice,” Curry said. “We are at the precipice and everyone needs to understand that.”