Board Tables Action on Oak Park; Additional Possible Cuts Released

Post date: Apr 19, 2011 2:04:05 PM

The Board of Education's meeting on April 18 began at 5:30 p.m. and did not conclude until 10:20 p.m. The large focus of the meeting was a recommendation from the Superintendent's Budget Development Committee to close Oak Park elementary school.

The board heard public comment from about 25 patrons, most of whom were from the Oak Park neighborhood arguing that the school should not be closed. Some complained about the quick turnaround time from the notification of staff and families to the board meeting last night. Others spoke about hardships of losing an anchor of the community for the families of Oak Park.

BEA Chief Negotiator Granger Meador also made a public comment about how the recommendation came because the district must reduce the budget, 85% or more of the budget is personnel, and cutting elementary staff without closing Oak Park would cut instructional services and increase class sizes across the district. He also noted that the district had downsized from 17 to 7 elementary schools between 1968 and 1986, with Oak Park being the only remaining small school not closed. Oak Park has two teachers per grade level while the other six elementary schools have three or four teachers per grade level.

The board was persuaded to table the item on Oak Park since the community did not hear about the possible closure until the first week of April. The superintendent pointed out that the closure decision on Oak Park will drive the development of the budget plan and that means a number of teachers on temporary contracts will not know if they have a job next year and elementary teachers throughout the district will not know which school they will be assigned to until the decision is made. Some board members discussed taking a vote at their next meeting at noon on May 5, but the board did not set a timeline for taking action on the item.

The superintendent and board members pointed out that if Oak Park is not closed, the district must find significant savings elsewhere in the budget since even after using all of the remaining federal jobs money and growth money the district will be short $1.4 million or more. Board President Divelbiss outlined how if that continues for a year or two the district fund balance would be exhausted and the district could not operate.

In the board discussion it was mentioned that if Oak Park is not closed, elementary staff reductions could mean cutting half of the art, music, and physical education teachers across the elementaries, eliminating all of the computer lab assistants, and cutting additional classroom teachers. The budget committee endorsed closing Oak Park instead since class sizes would then remain stable and the district could provide full-time art, music, and physical education teachers at each site while staffing the computer labs. Art, music, and physical education programs are considered vital instructional functions and, at some sites, reducing them could also make providing the negotiated planning time of 180 to 210 minutes per week for elementary teachers more difficult to arrange.

Saving $600,000 by closing Oak Park or making other reductions in the elementary schools will not be nearly enough to close the budget hole. Responding to concerns raised by patrons about what other cuts might be looming, the superintendent released to the board a preliminary cut list going beyond the closure of Oak Park. That list is a work in progress and does not constitute the final recommendation of the Budget Development Committee:

Please note that even with almost $1,000,000 in savings from these cuts there would still be a budget hole of $400,000 or likely even more given the cost of typical step increases for existing staff members and word from legislative leaders that the cuts in common education will rise from the Governor's budget of a 2.9% cut to 4.2% or more. Without more local district budget cuts, such costs and shortages would have to be covered by spending more of the fund balance, going beyond the $1,000,000 already being spent from it out of holdover jobs money and growth money.

The Budget Development Committee will reconvene on Wednesday to consider what information to provide to the board in helping it arrive at a budget. Until the board votes on the proposal to close Oak Park, we cannot say which teachers will be employed in which positions across the district and cannot determine what sorts of cuts will be needed overall to arrive at a viable budget.