State Owes Geneva Schools $2 Million, But Finances, Academics on Firm Footing
Edu-Nation Series: Pre-emptive budget cuts help the district weather the recession while students continue to excel in state and national academic competitions. State payments to the district still are in arrears to the tune of about $2 million.
The state of Illinois still owes Geneva schools more than $2 million, but last year's budget cuts will help School District 304 weather the economic storm ahead, officials announced at Saturday's community forum.
"We made the cuts to build up our reserve funds that we will use the next few years," said Superintendent Kent Mutchler. "With the financial downturn, we expect next year to be our most challenging year yet."
During the 2009-10 school year, the district reduced its spending by a little more than $3 million, with total expenditures coming in at $1.6 million under budget. Officials saved about $947,000 by replacing some large buses with smaller buses, restructuring bus routes and using district buses to transport special education students to private schools instead of outsourcing those routes, said Donna Oberg, assistant superintendent for business services.
The administration also saved about $864,000 in payroll costs by replacing retiring teachers with younger teachers at lower salaries and by combining several after-school clubs at the two middle schools; saved $814,000 in operations and maintenance costs by not filling maintenance staff vacancies; and $390,450 by cutting each school's supplies budget by about $50 per student.
"Our staff worked very hard to make these cuts work so that they didn't impact the kids," Mutchler said.
Last year, the district went significantly over its budget in several areas, spending an extra $1.8 million in new school construction; $1.1 million in emergency repairs to Geneva High School's heating and ventilation systems; and $100,000 to bus an increased number of homeless students between their schools and out-of-town homeless shelters.
"Even though costs have increased, we've been able to maintain and lower our budget," Oberg said.
The district is still waiting for the last quarterly state-aid payment for 2009-10, which was due last June. Officials expect that check to arrive in December, which will leave the state about $2 million behind in payments to the district, Oberg said.
"While we don't rely on state funds, we do get about 8 percent of our income from the state," she observed. "Many districts that get 40 percent or more in state funding are struggling with big budget cuts and steep deficits. I expect this pattern [of delayed state aid payments] to go on at least a couple of years."
Meanwhile, students last year racked up an impressive list of achievements, including two National Merit Scholars and nine commended students; 101 Illinois State Scholars; state championships in track and field, cross country and dance; seven IMEA All-State musicians; the state winner of the Youth Internet Safety competition; and six schools cited for excellence by the Illinois State Board of Education.
"Our students accomplish a great deal more than achieving high test scores," Mutchler observed. "Our main job as educators is to provide students with opportunities to succeed."
The district's curriculum focuses on two pillars: literacy and problem-solving, said Patty O'Neill, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
"I can't emphasize enough how important a sound foundation in reading is to students' education," she said. "We want students to have lifelong reading skills and to be able to enjoy reading all their lives."
Students at every grade level receive training in a problem-solving process that includes identifying the problem, developing a solution; trying the solution and evaluating the results to see if it worked and how it could be improved.
"I love it," said parent Connie Wilson. "It's awesome that you're teaching problem-solving to kids as young as my second-grader."
Officials also fielded questions on why the district failed to meet adequate yearly progress in the percentage of special education students who met state standards in math and reading last year. That failure could put the district at risk of federal monitoring under the No Child Left Behind Act.
"Students with special needs take exactly the same tests as other students, with accommodations to meet their needs," O'Neill explained. "Sometimes the accommodations are sufficient to compensate for their disabilities and sometimes they're not. It's a Catch-22: We're providing these students with individualized educations that fit their needs and abilities, but the state expects them to perform on standardized tests the same as their [mainstream] counterparts."
Board of Education President Mary Stith added that she's seen newspaper reports stating that many otherwise high-achieving schools in the Chicago area are failing to meet NCLB standards in test results for special education students.
Residents who wish to see the district's community forum presentation can find it posted on the district's website, www.geneva304.org, Mutchler said.
Editor's note: This story is part of a nationwide Patch series examining the economy's effect on local schools.