Neither an impending ice storm nor finals week could stop the more than 3,000 students, parents and teachers who packed the auditorium at Maine East High School Wednesday night to protest Maine Township High School District 207's proposed staff cuts and other reductions.
School board members got an earful about the administration's recommendation to eliminate 137 employees, including 75 teachers districtwide at the end of the school year.
Public comments started at around 7:30 p.m., and continued past 11 p.m.
The message was loud and clear that students, parents and teachers wanted the district to use its reserves - expected to be $86 million at the end of the current academic year - to plug a projected $19 million deficit in the 2010-11 school year.
Students were first to address the board since it was a school night and finals were scheduled for today.
Amid screams, whistles and thunderous claps akin to what one might hear at a pep rally, students spoke in support of keeping their favorite teachers and staff members targeted to be laid off from the three high schools at year's end.
There were tears, too, as they shared the emotional impact of losing teachers who had served as "role models, mentors and friends."
"I am going to lose a wonderful teacher who is my ESL teacher," said Shivani Bhatia, a student at Maine West High School in Des Plaines. "We can pay extra for our lunch and facilities, but we need our teachers. Who is going to take their place?"
Eliminating the 75 largely nontenured, certified teachers at the end of the current school year would save the district $5 million, officials have said.
English, science, special education, physical education, applied arts and technology, and mathematics departments at the district's three high schools stand to lose the most teachers.
"There is a general consensus among the district's students to save the teachers," said Patrick Wohl, a sophomore at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. "I hope the district is hearing the message from the students and from the public. How about getting a group of students who can suggest things that they believe should be cut and other ideas they have for increasing revenue?"
Wohl suggested selling advertising space on newly installed plasma television screens at Maine South or adding a cell phone tower at the school.
District 207's administration altogether recommended $15 million in cuts districtwide from the 2010-11 academic year budget to reduce the projected $19 million deficit. Officials also have said they will raise $2 million in new revenue.
A year ago, the district had a cash balance of $100 million, roughly 90 percent of its annual operating budget of $112 million. Superintendent Ken Wallace has said that over a three-year period, the reserve will be cut down by about $30 million and a further reduction would be irresponsible.
District officials this week revised their five-year financial projections taking into account the 2009 Consumer Price Index of 2.7 percent, released Jan. 15. CPI is the measure used by school districts to set the property tax levy each year to collect taxes. It was a welcome jump from the nearly flat CPI in 2008.
"Based on the new CPI, the best-case scenario is next year we would have no deficit," Wallace said.
However, the most likely scenario is that the district would have a $4 million deficit in 2010-11 school year, he said.
With the new financial projections, the district could have anywhere from a $12 million to 22 million deficit in the 2014-15 school year.
Phil Sumida, a physics teacher at Maine West High School, said the district was focusing too much on the worst-case scenario.
"The district is in a financial crisis that has been years in the making and the board of education was made aware of this crisis long before July 2009," Sumida said. "The board was informed by auditors that there was a structural deficit coming and that the number of certified staff they had chosen to hire was unsustainable."
Sumida echoed comments made repeatedly during the night that the district's fund balance was built up for just this purpose.
"Over the past 10 school years, the district has taxed residents an average of 5 percent above the money necessary to run the school district," he said. "If they had not done this, there would be no fund balance."
Maine Teacher's Association President Emma Visee questioned how district administrators could miss a nearly $6 million increase in the projected deficit for the 2008-09 school year.
"The current economic problem the district faces is not about teachers," she said. "This district's budget problems beg the question who was watching the store? How do we find ourself in a double-digit budget deficit now."
The overwhelming student presence at Wednesday's public hearing was a result of a Facebook movement to rally against the proposed layoffs and funding cuts for extracurricular programs such as fencing and orchestra next year.
Students created several groups on the social networking site - like "Maine Township Students Against Teacher and Staff Cuts" and "Save Maine West Fencing" - that have attracted more than 3,000 members.
"What music contributes to us is not something that can be touched by the stock market," said Steven Maroni, a Maine West High School senior. "I speak for hundreds when I say the fine arts are a core part of our lives."
Many students questioned whether the district had exhausted all of its options before considering layoffs.
"All other options should be explored before any teachers have to lose their jobs. ... That should be the last resort," said Michael Airman, a senior at Maine West. "I believe in every student's high school career there is at least one teacher or staff member they meet that changes their life forever."
By 9 p.m., school board President Ed Mueller requested students who were lined up to speak to consolidate their comments that repeated the same message so students could get home before curfew and prepare for finals.
Layoffs and other cuts won't be finalized until a school board meeting on Feb. 1.
Though officials have said the proposed cuts have largely spared academic and extracurricular programs, the fencing program at Maine West in Des Plaines could lose its $24,000 yearly funding and an assistant fencing coach.
The district proposes eliminating Mandarin Chinese at Maine East and Maine West for the 2010-11 school year due to low enrollments, while offering Chinese classes at Maine South.
Officials also propose cutting the budget for Maine East's debate team for travel, supplies and competitions; moving fencing from athletics into intramurals; reducing the number of speech coaches from three to two at each school; having a districtwide boys' co-op gymnastics team instead of separate teams at East and South; reducing the number of jazz band directors from two to one at each school and reducing the number of intramurals offered at each school.
The Maine Township High School District 207 school board is expected to approve the administration's recommended cuts at its Feb. 1 meeting.
Suggested reductions from 2009-2010 full-time equivalent staffing:
• Certified teaching staff: 13% (75 jobs)
• Safety monitors: 31% (16.5 jobs)
• Secretary/clerical: 15% (13.5 jobs)
• Teaching assistants: 17% (11 jobs)
• Custodial/maintenance: 11% (11 jobs)
• Administrative: 11% (7 jobs)
• Technology/data processing: 10% (2 jobs)
• Security guards: 7% (1 job)
Cuts in dollars:
$50,000 in legal fees
$750,000 in extracurricular/stipends, substitutes and special programs
$1 million in technology
$1 million in capital outlay
$1 million in out-of-district tuition costs
$1.1 million in administrative cuts
$2.5 million in noncertified staff including overtime
$2.6 million in supplies/purchase services
$5 million in certified staff
Cuts by teaching department in FTE staff:
Applied arts & technology - 6
Bilingual/ESL - 2.85
Counselors - 3.50
English - 14
Fine arts - 4.20
Foreign language - 4
Library - 3
Mathematics - 6
Physical education - 6.80
Science - 10.25
Special education - 9.83
Social science - 4.70
Classes/programs affected in 2010-2011 school year:
• Mandarin Chinese at Maine East and Maine West will be eliminated for the 2010-11 school year due to low enrollments. Students currently enrolled in Chinese can attend Maine South for this class. Classes will be scheduled during the day to allow for transportation between schools.
• The budget for some athletic and extracurricular activities will be reduced, but the programs will not be eliminated entirely. That includes money for the Maine East debate team for travel, supplies and competitions; moving fencing from athletics into intramurals; reducing the number of speech coaches from three to two at each school; having a districtwide boys' co-op gymnastics team instead of separate teams at East and South; reducing the number of jazz band directors from two to one at each school and reducing the number of intramurals offered at each school.
For more information on the cost reductions, visit maine207.org.
Source: Maine Township High School District 207