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Let's keep our wits during budget crisis
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 1/28/2010 12:01 AM

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For many people, the nation's trillions in debt is beyond comprehension and emotional reach.

Illinois' budget is short by billions and just cracking the Top Ten list of things that keep people up at night.

But tell a parent you're going to limit the number of electives high school students will be able to take, and you'd think it was an all-out assault on the American way of life.

That's what is going on in Elgin Area School District U-46, the largest district in the state outside of Chicago. As news trickles out almost daily on the 41,000-student district's financial morass - U-46 could be in the vicinity of $65 million in the hole next year if it doesn't make some draconian moves - the loss of some electives should be put into context.

For many of our suburban school districts whose leaders and taxpayers have become accustomed to building $100 million high schools, the current state of affairs is shocking.

U-46 found itself in a $40 million hole several years ago and climbed mostly out of it by cutting 800 teachers. That number is shocking, as will the number the district's budget task force will come up with next week.

Maine Township High School District 207, facing a $19 million shortfall and has proposed cutting 137 teachers and other district employees. Thousands turned out to a recent public hearing to complain, many urging the district to dip into the district's deep reserves that in recent years have begun to shrink.

In Mount Prospect, River Trails Elementary District 26 is looking at splitting its two elementary schools by grade levels rather than neighborhoods. Wheeling District 21 may do the same.

It's hard to find a suburban district in the pink.

On top of the state's broken school funding formula, the suburban property tax cap and the recession, districts are suffering under the strain of the state's continued inability to pay its bills on time or at all.

School boards, administrators and teachers unions must be innovative in their approach to solve these money problems and develop a new framework for extracting the best educational experience for the dollar - just like the private sector. Cuts need to be focused, thoughtful and prioritized. That may mean paring back on administrative costs to preserve classrooms.

These issues are not short term. And neither will be their solutions. It's incumbent upon all of us to not take the loss of certain extracurricular programs as a personal affront. School boards must put classroom learning ahead of extracurriculars. We must approach school boards with the same rationality we use when examining our personal finances.

We continue to expect our schools to provide the highest possible level of challenge, motivation and education to prepare them for the future. But we all need to realize that doing so will force us to give up - or find new ways to finance - some of the expensive extracurricular programs we've come to appreciate in better times.