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Fighting back against the tide of school budget cuts
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

Maine West High School student Spencer Armstrong rallied against cuts to the fencing program at his school - and won.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/8/2010 12:10 AM | Updated: 3/8/2010 10:13 AM

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Second of two parts

Brad Hawk has a bird's-eye view of what he calls "a perfect financial storm."

The former superintendent of Central Unit District 301 in western Kane County, retired since last summer, has spent recent months working as a consultant, helping school administrators try to work through budget crises.

It's a frustrating task, he says.

"You want to do the very best for the public, and that's stacked against you. It's like the rules of the game have been changed midyear," he said.

"As a superintendent, you understand you're going to hit a raw nerve. You're going to stress you're being fiscally responsible with their money, but also tell them perhaps the quality of your education for your child is going to suffer because we can't afford it. You've got to be real sensitive to the fact that they're going to be outraged."

Suburban districts - once a smorgasbord of specialty programs for every educational taste - are getting hit from every end.

According to foreclosure database RealtyTrac, roughly 3.5 percent of Kane, McHenry, Cook, Lake and DuPage counties' properties were listed as foreclosures in 2009 - the highest number in decades. That combined with a mere 0.1 percent inflation rate that by law sets allowable tax increases means districts are collecting less in property taxes than they've been accustomed to.

Illinois' unemployment rate, as of February, was 10.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. And the state's financial crisis has only made matters worse. Illinois is nearly $5 billion behind in payments, $1 billion to school districts alone.

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Elgin Area School District U-46 must make at least $31 million in cuts next year, 8 percent of its total budget.

Wheeling District 21 will cut roughly $12 million. Cary District 26: $5.4 million. The list goes on.

The future is not looking too bright, either.

Illinois faces a roughly $13 billion deficit in the upcoming budget year, Gov. Pat Quinn's budget director said Saturday.

On Wednesday, the Democratic governor will announce his proposal for filling the shortfall. Vaught would not discuss the size of the tax increase Quinn plans to seek, but he did outline the spending cuts - about $2 billion.

General education spending would fall by about $1.4 billion, he said, an 11 percent decrease. The "foundation level" of state support for each child would fall from $6,119 now to about $5,600 next year.

"They (local schools) are going to have to tighten their belts and face up to this," Vaught told the Daily Herald last week. "And then they're going to have to help us find a solution."

Some parents and students have refused to give up on the high quality education they moved to the suburbs for. By studying budgets and funding sources, coming up with comprehensive plans and fundraising campaigns, they've proven that some programs can be saved.

Maine West fencing

Spencer Armstrong's duel with the Maine Township High School District 207 school board is a lot like the fencing program he battled to protect.

The 16-year-old approached his opponent with strategy and skill, and refused to back down.

After Spencer, a Maine West sophomore and varsity fencer, heard the program was a potential victim of district budget cuts, he sprang to action.

First he formed a Facebook group, "Save Maine West Fencing!," which drew 1,400 members in just a few weeks.

He spoke to the school board, clad in his powder blue team warmups and medals.

He worked with the team to take out newspaper ads decrying the move.

And he brainstormed ways the fencing program - originally slated to be demoted from a varsity sport to an intramural program - could be kept intact.

"My mom and I counted, and Maine West sponsors more than 50 teams a year. We calculated that if every one (of those teams) took a $500 budget cut, that would save fencing," Spencer said. "That's like a bus ride to another school."

The team invited the school board out to its last fencing meet recently at New Trier High School.

Fencing, at the high school level, is a rarity.

While the Illinois High School Association has for many years "recognized" fencing in Illinois high schools, there have never been enough participating schools to justify IHSA sponsorship. At most throughout the sport's history in Illinois, only about 15 schools in any one year have had teams, according to the association. Normally, it's fewer than half that.

In February, board members announced that fencing would be removed from the district's cut list.

"We're obviously really, really grateful. It's a big deal. I definitely think they took our thoughts into consideration," Spencer said.

But some concerns remain. Spencer is aware that the sport could get cut in the future, if district finances don't improve.

He plans to stay vigilant, planning fundraisers and ways to keep the program in the news.

"We know they could make this go away. We want to show everyone what a great program this is."

Lake Zurich music

Supporters of Lake Zurich Unit District 95's music program have some advice for parents and students affected by school budget cuts.

Do your homework. Get on top of the issues. And get the word out.

Last February, $4 million in recommended budget cuts were announced for the 6,570-student district, including the fourth- and fifth-grade band and orchestra program.

Parents who had seen their children blossom in the music program were outraged.

"Fourth- and fifth-grade band and orchestra are the foundation for all of our arts programs," said Janet Barron, the mother of Lake Zurich High School and Lake Zurich Middle School students.

"If that foundation is weak, it affects us all the way up to the high school level."

Parents decided to turn their frustrations into action, forming a group, Save Lake Zurich Music, dedicated to raising the $200,000 necessary to keep the program running.

"We said this is doable," said Laura Clements, a Hawthorn Woods resident and mother of middle and high school students.

The group held a raffle, sold T-shirts, and held fundraising dinners, silent auctions and a golf outing.

It also went to district officials with hard facts.

"One of the big things we ran up against at first was you need to understand how school districts make their budget, get their funding, and go about doing that. And how does your school district decide how many staffers this program needs?," Barron said.

The school board decided to keep the program, and altered its budget, only using $35,000 of Save Lake Zurich Music's funds. The rest is now sitting in a restricted fund to which only the organization has access.

The school district's financial picture brightened when Lake Zurich officials presented the board with a $493,557 check. The village had agreed to pay the district money for several new students who moved into the village's tax increment financing district, a special taxing district designed to spur redevelopment in a blighted area.

The fundraising group has evolved, too, changing its name to District 95 Performance Music Advocates.

"It doesn't mean it can't happen again," Barron said. "We want to make sure we keep on this and are proactive now."

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.