On March 20, the District 65 School Board unanimously approved cuts of $5.1 million for the 2017-18 school year (FY’18). Forty-nine staff positions, including 30 teaching positions, would be eliminated if the District’s operating referendum is not approved by voters in the April 4 election. If the referendum is approved, the school-based cuts will be reversed.
Superintendent Paul Goren said the Board needed to decide on the cuts at the March 20 meeting so administrators could send Reduction in Force (RIF) notices to teachers and other staff impacted in a timely fashion and in accordance with union contracts. RIF notices will be sent on March 24. If the referendum is approved, the District will unwind the RIFs related to school-based reductions and some central office reductions. If the referendum fails, the RIFs/reductions take effect on June 30.
This is the first in a series of cuts that would be needed if the referendum fails. Dr. Goren said an additional $3.7 million in cuts would be needed in FY’19, and then millions of dollars of additional cuts would be needed to address operating deficits that are projected to grow to $24.4 million by FY’25.
Prior Discussions on the Cuts
Dr. Goren presented his recommendations for the $5.1 million in cuts for FY’18 and the $3.7 million in FY’19 at Board meetings held on March 13 and March 20. They were in line with a summary of the cuts presented to the Board on Dec. 19, and with summaries presented in many information sessions since then. The latest recommendations, however, contain more details.
Between Feb. 28 and March 3, Dr. Goren said, individual meetings were held with all Board members to review the details of the recommended reductions. Between March 1 and 13, the District’s Human Resource Department held conversations with impacted staff who were eligible to move into other positions, and a final list of employees to receive RIF notices was prepared.
“This is not an easy conversation,” said Dr. Goren. “We don’t want to reduce positions. We don’t want to reduce programs. We want to maintain the momentum. We want to maintain the camaraderie of the School District. That’s why we’re here as educators. That’s why we’re here as community members. There’s no road to $5.1 million in 2017-18 or $8.8 million in two years that is not hard.”
Board President Candance Chow said, “With all the hope we have in what is possible for children of District 65, for their families, and for the workplace in which 1,500 people come every day – we have to be prepared for the possibility that this referendum does not pass. And we have to have plans that balance our deficits next year and the years beyond.”
The Decision Process
Dr. Goren emphasized that in deciding on the proposed cuts, administrators attempted to preserve core instruction and student supports, to maintain student growth in both reading and math, to maintain the progress on improving school climate, and to continue the work being done to address the opportunity and achievement gaps.
“We reviewed every item in the budget,” said Dr. Goren. For each possible reduction, he said, administrators asked the following questions to minimize the impact on equity and instruction:
• Is the expense legally required
• Will it have an inequitable impact on students
• Is it central to achieving our strategic goals
• How disruptive would the change be to students and families
• How much would the reduction impact core instruction
• How difficult would it be to implement and how does it impact staff
• What would the savings be
• Can the District provide the services or program more efficiently
As part of the analysis, administrators decided whether to retain a program or service or to reduce, restructure, or eliminate it.
The Equity Analysis
Dr. Goren added that administrators did their analysis using an equity lens.
As part of the equity analysis Dr. Goren said they considered “to what extent does this area of spending advance our equity agenda, to what extent would a potential reduction have an impact on a historically marginalized population in the District, and would the reduction damage trust and relationships with historically marginalized communities.”
Based on that analysis, administrators decided not to include $5.6 million of potential reductions in the initial budget cuts due to equity concerns. They fall into four categories.
Early Childhood: “We are not offering any reductions in full-day kindergarten, early childhood programming, early grade literacy and achievement and opportunity gap interventions, and the work being done with Evanston Cradle to Career,” said Dr. Goren.
Teaching and Learning: “We’re focused very specifically on maintaining our reading specialists and the intensive supports that we are providing for students in the bottom quartile of performance,” said Dr. Goren. Administrators also recommend maintaining the African Centered Curriculum (ACC) program, maintaining assistant principals at Title I schools and elementary schools with more than 500 students, and maintaining the ESL [English as a second language] teacher/student ratio.
School Climate/Student Supports: “We are maintaining special services supports (mental health supports, social workers, and psychologists). We are maintaining the size of special education caseloads. We continue our work, even doubling-down, our equity training and development budget, and we are continuing our work on School Climate Teams and social-emotional learning.”
Community Partnerships: “Finally on community partnerships, we can maintain our resources toward after-school programming and summer learning opportunities for striving learners. We’re maintaining our commitment to community schools and to family and community engagement.”
Central-Office Cuts - $1.2 Million for FY’18
Administrators initially identified administrative cuts and efficiencies that are farthest from the classroom, and Dr. Goren recommended a total of $1.2 million in Central Office cuts - $470,000 relating to personnel, and $740,000 relating to non-personnel.
On the personnel side, nine FTEs would be eliminated ($255,000), salaries and benefits of top-level administrators would be adjusted ($65,000), administrator professional development benefit costs would be reduced ($40,000), and external funding would be secured for current research and strategy ($110,000).
The District would achieve non-personnel reductions at the Central Office totaling $740,000 through general reductions, transportation efficiencies, and other measures.
When asked if any additional administrative positions could be cut, Dr. Goren said, “I don’t know how I could run the enterprise without the players I have.”
He added that the salaries of senior administrators have been frozen for FY’18 and their benefits reduced. Dr. Goren said, at his request, his salary was frozen this year and next year.
Ms. Chow said the District has been managing administrative expenses. The ratio of administrators to students has dropped from 1 to 125 to 1 to 175, she said. In addition, the District’s administrative expenses are in the lowest quartile of school districts in the State.
Dr. Goren pointed out that 12% of all central administrative and operations full-time employees (FTEs) were being reduced, compared with 3% of all school-based FTEs.
School-Based Cuts - $3.9 Million in FY’18
Dr. Goren recommended that the Board approve $3.9 million in “school-based cuts,” with $3.2 million in personnel and $700,000 in non-personnel.
To reduce personnel costs by $3.2 million, Dr. Goren recommended cuts of 40 FTEs, approximately 30 teachers and 10 support staff.
The staff reductions consist of:
• eliminating three assistant principal positions ($350,000),
• increasing class-size guidelines by three students in K-5 and to 28 students in middle schools ($1.36 million),
• additional staff reductions to achieve $1.46 million in cuts, including: increasing class sizes for middle school arts and PE; reducing and eliminating library media assistants; eliminating the industrial arts position; eliminating the band and orchestra at fourth and fifth grades; reducing PBIS coaching support, eliminating TWI aides; and eliminating middle school athletics.
To achieve the $700,000 in non-personnel costs, Dr. Goren recommends continuing to delay the purchase of new science curriculum materials ($550,000), eliminating Camp Timberlee ($70,000); and reducing school leadership coaching and support and other measures ($80,000).
Cuts of $3.7 Million in FY’19
Dr. Goren also summarized potential cuts of $3.7 million for the school year 2018-19. “These larger structural changes would be very disruptive, very painful to the District,” he said.
These cuts could include further increases to elementary school class-size guidelines (at least 5 over current guidelines); eliminating or charging non-low-income households for the second half of the kindergarten day; potentially eliminating geometry at Evanston Township High School; closing one or more schools; combining buildings to serve fewer grade levels; creating multi-grade classrooms; establishing a District-wide home school reassignment; reducing all transportation services that are not legally required; and revisiting all items removed from consideration for the school year 2017-18.
Board members explored the rationale for cutting TWI aides, keeping the ACC program, continuing to offer geometry at ETHS, and the impact of increasing the class-size guidelines. The only recommendation that was debated during the two meetings was the proposal to cut the band/orchestra program.
On March 13 and 20, 16 people spoke against cutting the band/orchestra program. Many extolled the benefits of music for children and said it is essential to a well-rounded education, and that it fostered cooperation, collaboration and teamwork. They said it provides children from low-income households a unique opportunity to learn an instrument or to join a band.
The speakers were backed by a crowd of about 100 people on March 13 and a slightly smaller crowd on March 20. Students attended both meetings, many of whom played their instruments either in the lobby or outside.
Dr. Goren said the District valued art and music, and pointed out that administrators did not propose cutting art or music as part of the regular curriculum.
Stacey Beardsley, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction, said students who sign up for band/orchestra are pulled out of a core instructional classroom to participate in the program. “It’s not part of the regular instructional day for kids; it’s something in addition to the core instructional program,” she said, adding that about 1,100 students participate in band and orchestra at all grade levels.
On March 13, Board members Claudia Garrison and Sergio Fernandez opposed cutting band/orchestra, and they and other Board members asked if there was another alternative.
Dr. Goren said administrators looked at band/orchestra in comparison to potentially cutting reading specialists, eliminating the ACC program, cutting additional assistant principals, and accelerating the increase in class-size guidelines.
Dr. Goren said the cost savings for cutting band and orchestra was about $380,000; and he suggested that if the Board decided to increase class-size guidelines by four students, rather than three students, next year, that would be a possible alternative. He said, though, “I stand by my recommendation.”
At that meeting, Board members weighed in on whether to increase class sizes by four students next year, or to stick with the recommendation to cut band/orchestra. Two members supported increasing class sizes by four students; three supported Dr. Goren’s recommendation; and one was undecided.
Board Member’s Reasons for Supporting the $5.1 Million in Cuts
“This is probably the most difficult meeting and most difficult set of decisions that the Board has to make,” said Ms. Chow. “Whatever reductions we choose will have an impact on our ability to deliver excellent education to our students.
“The reductions we make tonight only get harder, and they’re going to start more quickly if the referendum does not pass,” Ms. Chow continued. “The next series of reductions will need even deeper and broader planning because of the level of impact they would have and the disruption they would have on the School District.”
Omar Brown acknowledged the pain of receiving a RIF notice, even if it is rescinded. He said, though, “At some point I think we have to trust the administration is making the right decision. I truly believe that they’ve done due diligence. They can tell you I asked questions and attempted to poke holes in it. … I think you have to move forward and trust their decision.”
Mr. Brown added that this was the first time he had heard of an administration making a decision using an equity framework. “The fact that we’ve used this lens is a tremendous step forward … and makes me want to support it even more.”
Tracy Quattrocki, who is serving her eighth year on the Board, said, “When I’ve seen cuts made in the past, I’ve never seen the administration come and explain in such detail the values they brought to their decision and the equity lens that they brought to their decision and the programs they were able to protect because of the emphasis they placed on equity.
“Even though they [the cuts] are tremendously painful, the fact that we may be able to reverse them takes a little bit of the edge out of this tonight.”
Mr. Fernandez said, “It’s refreshing to hear that in order to close the achievement gap we first have to close the opportunity and access gap. To me that means not just meeting reading and math, but also access to enrichment programs. For me, it’s three things: it’s looking at social and emotional learning of kids; it’s the cognitive piece; and it’s access to art and creativity.” He acknowledged that the District was working in these areas, but said it was not consistent in all schools.
“The referendum presents us with this opportunity to redefine what it means to be educated in District 65 schools,” said Mr. Fernandez. “My question to the Board, our administrators, and our community is, ‘Are we willing to do this hard work to rethink how we educate kids in this District?’”
Claudia Garrision said, “This is my first time having to look at such difficult cuts and vote for them, but I don’t have a choice because a vote against these cuts would mean I’m voting for deficit spending, and that would be irresponsible.” She said she hoped that if the referendum did not pass, that band/orchestra could be reinstated through a creative solution.
Suni Kartha said, “As difficult as it is, I think the fiscally responsible thing for this Board is to move forward with this proposal and not move forward with deficit spending if the referendum does not pass.”
Anya Tanyavutti said, “Despite what has been challenging, there is a great deal to be hopeful for,” mentioning the commitment to equity and to address institutional marginalization; the school climate and culture teams; the restorative justice work; the research-based K-3 literacy framework; opportunities to build on student growth trajectories; and an engaged and invested community.
Board members unanimously approved the recommended reductions in a series of votes.
Pleas for the Referendum
Three District 65 parents who are members of the Committee to Save Our Schools spoke at the March 20 meeting and urged the public to rally behind the referendum.
Andy Ross said he knew there were many other people at the meeting “who are very, very concerned about having to move forward with these devastating cuts. You can certainly count me in this crowd. … But there are no good options – only bad ones. I think it would be best to focus all our energies in ensuring that the first operating referendum being put to the voters here in 30 years passes.”
Bridget Nelson said, “Together we really can ensure our schools get the funding needed to protect the vital programs and modest class sizes we treasure. Together we can make sure all of our kids get the education they need and deserve.”
Dawn Koenigsknecht said, “These cuts are painful any way you look at it. … As a community, we need to ensure this referendum passes. Please help us make sure that these cuts do not happen.”