Cautiously Optimistic, Financial Oversight Panel Looking To Leave District 209 By 2016

The Forest Park Review is Now Partnering with The Village Free Press

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 || By Michael Romain 

First published: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 by the Forest Park Review

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(Photo by District 209).

FOREST PARK–The Financial Oversight Panel [FOP] that was appointed by the state board of education to help Proviso Township High School district 209 address a range of financial problems is tentatively looking to relinquish its oversight authority by the summer of 2016, it was announced.

At a special joint meeting between the Board of Education and the oversight panel held Tuesday, May 27, FOP chairman Craig Schilling presented the panel’s transition plan. He said that ever since the panel was established, the formation of an exit strategy has been forefront in everyone’s minds.

“Ever since I got here, the question always came up, ‘When do we get [to the point where we can leave]? I’d like to say that, from my own perspective, I think the last year has been really good. The relationship between the FOP and the Proviso Board [has improved], the financial plan is as good as it’s ever been [and] more data is coming from departments.”

In 2008, crippling financial deficits moved the D209 board to request the state to assign a Financial Oversight Panel. Since then, the district has balanced its budget and achieved “financial recognition,” the state’s highest designation, each year since 2010.

In 2012, the district unsuccessfully appealed to the state board of education to remove the FOP. Instead, “the State implemented a new statute which gave the FOP greater authority,” according to a press release issued by D209 May 30.

Schilling said that the FOP’s exit strategy will unfold over a 24-month timeline. During the first year, the panel would be looking to see how well the district independently meets benchmarks in the areas of financial stability, administrative leadership, board leadership, teaching and learning, and human resources.

According to Schilling, the panel would also be evaluating whether or not the district can maintain its recognition status and whether the district fosters public understanding of its financial condition. Moreover, he stressed that the district must continue to balance its budget, keep consistent and accurate financial information and put out a complete financial plan in a timely manner.

With respect to the emphasis on budgeting, however, Schilling added a caveat. He said that as much as the FOP emphasizes balanced budgets, he doesn’t want the board to achieve that balance at the expense of students.

“What we want to do is focus the budgeting piece,” he said. “We’re not here […] just to be budgeting for budgeting’s sake. We want to be here for the kids. When we look at this stuff from an administrative perspective, we have to tie it into the kid part.”

Schilling said a key question for the board is, “‘Are we spending our resources based on research and practice, cost effectiveness, evaluation and the impact on outcomes for all students.'”

Striking a cautionary note, Schilling expounded on the likely passage of new legislation that will consider a district’s wealth as a determining factor in the amount of State funding it receives. Senate Bill 16 had just passed the Illinois Senate on the day of the special meeting. Schilling said that if the bill passes the Illinois House and becomes law, Proviso will lose a lot of money.

“On paper, you’re a wealthy high school district,” he said, a notion that does not seem to square with the high numbers of low-income households within D209’s service area. “You do very well, because of your tax base.”

According to Todd Drafall, the district’s chief financial officer, most of that wealth doesn’t come from households. He said that 60 to 70 percent of the district’s property tax revenue comes from industrial and commercial properties.

Schilling said, “all things being equal,” district 209 spends more money in property tax revenue per student (about $700) than many other high school districts in the State–but to disappointing effect.

“I picked out high schools in Illinois and compared them to Proviso East,” Schilling said. “Almost all of them are performing higher than East and they have more low-income students than East […] I could do this with West, too.”

“You don’t have the performance to go with the wealth,” Schilling said. “To me, it’s a question of, ‘Are we spending our money wisely in every area.’ Where can we repurpose the money?”

Schilling noted that one particular area the district needs to do a better job of addressing is the growing achievement gap between its black and Hispanic students.

“In 2010, you were basically even,” he said. “Now, there’s almost a 22 percent difference, with Hispanics outperforming black students. This is the kind of data you need to be looking at.”

During his presentation of the FY 2015 financial plan, Mr. Drafall said that one area in the budget with the lowest-hanging fruit is human resources. According to Schilling, HR comprises 80 percent of the budget.

“There are a lot of [costs] that are hidden,” Drafall said. “We were looking at what it costs to simply hire a custodian. We now have all three building managers interview a custodian [which is essentially a $20,000 to $22,000 a year employee]. It costs $157 an hour for that interview [when you consider] the hourly rate of those individuals. How many times to do we have to interview fifty people for one position?”

Drafall said that the time it takes to interview custodial candidates is time not spent on supervising the buildings.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “Those are the little things and they have nothing to do with student learning or testing.”

Schilling suggested the board review the Financial Oversight Panel transition plan for more detailed discussion at the next meeting. He said that in order for the transition to go smoothly, the district’s administrative team has to buy into the panel’s benchmarks.

Brian Cross, the D209’s vice president, said that the plan was reasonable. Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart was also satisfied with the proposal as Schillling presented it.

“I thank the FOP for their assistance during the last six years, and I am confident that we can move forward as a school district,” she said. “I will say the technical assistance provided by the FOP has been invaluable in our efforts to restore financial stability.” VFP

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