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Money Issues Dominate District 304 Forum, New Elementary School Plans Enter Discussion

Residents voice concerns about the district's short-term financial future.

Once the economy resurges, property values recover and the Illinois Legislature pays its state aid backlog, School District 304 has grand plans for the future, about two dozen residents learned Saturday at the district’s community forum.

A full-day kindergarten program, a new elementary school in LaFox, renovations at Geneva High School and more enrichment programs top that list, Board of Education members agreed.

But officials now are still working to limit the district’s spending and pay down the $600,000-plus debt from its last growth spurt, which produced Williamsburg and Fabyan elementary schools as well as major repairs to Harrison Street and other elementary schools.

“Over the last two years we have cut $5.6 million from our budget,” said Assistant Superintendent Donna Oberg. “This year we’re looking to maintain our current budget while continuing to look for ways to economize and to refinance our bonds.”

Though officials five years ago had planned to ask for an education fund tax rate hike in 2011, prudent financial management has pushed the need for that rate hike at least five years into the future, she added.

Residents heard about new academic initiatives, several of which are driven by new state mandates that are being phased in. One new state law requires that administrators start evaluating teachers based on their students’ performance on standardized tests, said Assistant Superintendent Craig Collins. The Illinois State Board of Education is releasing new sections of its common core standards and its college and career readiness standards.

“We are continuing to modify our curriculum based on the new standards from the state,” said Assistant Superintendent Patti O’Neill.

Attendees also got an advance look at the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools project, which is being funded by a $374,545 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The project will help local agencies cooperate on a master response plan with chains of command for different types of emergencies; provide emergency response training for all school employees; buy equipment and supplies to keep on hand for emergency use; and establish recovery programs to help school communities heal after attacks or natural disasters.

Faith Christian and St. Peter parochial schools will be included in the project, noted REMS project director Charles “Chic” Williams.

Most audience members, though, seemed more concerned about the district’s short-term spending plans.

“Sixty-four percent of my tax bill goes to you guys, so I feel I should ask this. I applaud the administrators for not taking pay raises the last two years, but what have the unions done to follow your lead?” asked Mark Cox.

Bus drivers agreed to a pay freeze for the past two years when negotiating their last agreement in 2009, replied board President Mary Stith. While the Geneva Education Association teachers union did get raises in its current contract, which was signed a few months before the economy collapsed in 2008, teachers did agree to pay a higher share of their insurance costs, she added.

School Board candidate George Jackowiec told officials they should postpone plans to remodel the former Coultrap Elementary School building to house district offices until the economy stabilizes.

“How can you even consider a non-essential improvement when we have a huge debt, we’re cutting staff and we can’t afford to add academic programs?” he asked. “The people in Geneva I’m talking to are very concerned about district expenses, especially (the possibility of) cutting teachers.”

Board members put the Coultrap remodeling plan on hold last year because the real estate crisis made it unlikely that the district could sell its Fourth Street School building to pay for the work at Coultrap, Stith said. The board plans to revisit the proposal in late spring to see if it’s financially viable, she added.

People will be able to see a video recording of the entire forum on public access cable.

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