O'Fallon Progress

OTHS school board reverses course on budget cuts

O’Fallon Township High School students protest the District 203 budget cuts on Thursday afternoon outside of the high school. Martha Weld, assistant superintendent talks to student protesters.
O’Fallon Township High School students protest the District 203 budget cuts on Thursday afternoon outside of the high school. Martha Weld, assistant superintendent talks to student protesters. rkirsch@bnd.com

After backlash from students, the teachers’ union and O’Fallon community, the O’Fallon School District 203 School Board called an emergency meeting on March 2 to reconsider budget cuts it had approved just two days earlier.

The board’s new plan is to reduce costs by $610,000 in the 2017-18 school year, down from $1 million in cuts that it approved on Feb. 28.

Among the changes to the budget, which passed with a unanimous vote, are:

▪  Reduction in certified teaching staff equivalent to four full-time positions in classroom sections based on enrollment. The board stated that it will work with the O’Fallon teachers’ union on these cuts.

▪  Reduction in non-certified personnel equivalent to four full-time positions.

▪  Increase in athletic fees from $100 to $150 per participant.

▪  Increase in textbook and registration fees from $150 to $175 per student.

▪  Reduction of operating budget by $93,000.

The board decided against cuts to school social workers, administrators or staff in guidance and the library.

Feb. 28 meeting

Logan Bradford said his teachers and a social worker at school recently helped him through a dark time.

The 18-year-old struggled with a drug addiction that got him in trouble with the law, and he was having suicidal thoughts. Logan said O’Fallon Township High School was the only place where people’s opinions of him didn’t change during that time.

He shared his story Feb. 28, as the O’Fallon District 203 School Board considered more than $1 million in budget cuts, including cuts to teaching staff at the high school.

“These people have saved my life, can you at least save their jobs?” Logan asked the school board.

Logan said O’Fallon teachers talk to students in the classroom about how they’re doing. They form connections that feel more like family or friendships, he said, especially among the newer faculty members like his social worker, Caitlin Mueller.

“They care,” Logan said.

Alley Johnson, another student, told the school board that teachers have helped keep her motivated when going to classes isn’t what she enjoys most about school. Without teachers like those, Alley said students who struggle in their classes might “give up.”

“I know I wanted to, and there’s probably many who do,” she said during the meeting.

For several hours, board members privately reviewed a deficit-reduction plan to address what Superintendent Darcy Benway says is a financial crisis in District 203. Benway said the district is projecting a $2.3 million deficit by next school year, which is “primarily due to the state’s financial situation” and a lack of payments for education.

When the board came out of executive session, it voted to make the following changes to next year’s budget:

▪  Reductions in certified teaching staff equivalent to 8.4 full-time positions, including the equivalent of 6.8 full-time positions in classroom sections. Guidance and library staff were also to be affected by the reductions.

▪  Reductions in certified administrators equivalent to one full-time position.

▪  Reductions in non-certified personnel equivalent to five full-time positions.

▪  Increase in athletic fees from $100 per participant to $175 per participant.

▪  Increase in textbook and registration fees from $150 per student to $175 per student.

▪  Reduction of $93,000 in the district’s operating budgets.

▪  Elimination of the school’s early bird program, which is a morning class period.

Two board members, Keith Richter and Donna Johnson, voted against those cuts.

Mike Day, president of the O’Fallon teachers’ union, told the board members before the vote that he thought they should consider other options.

“This board and superintendent has to stop trying to balance their budget on the backs of the faculty and the students of OTHS,” he said. Teachers have already faced multiple rounds of salary freezes and have taken cuts to benefits in order to save the district millions, according to Day.

The board ultimately decided not to include social workers in its cuts. It had also previously considered cutting the swimming and lacrosse programs, but the sports were not included in the deficit-reduction plan and will not be affected next year.

Before the vote, Day said he had been hopeful that the board would decide against teacher layoffs.

“I’m just devastated to be honest,” Day said after the Feb. 28 meeting.

The cuts for the 2017-18 school year came after Benway said the district had made nearly $4 million in cuts since the 2010-11 school year.

“This is not new. The district has been in deficit reduction mode since 2009,” she said.

Several students cried and comforted each other in the meeting room when board members approved the deficit-reduction plan.

Students protest

The proposed cuts passed on Feb. 28 prompted hundreds of students to walk out of classes on Thursday, arguing that the cuts will hurt their education.

“We are fighting for our education,” said Morgan Barnum, one of the student protesters at OTHS’ Smiley campus.

O’Fallon police had a presence during the peaceful protest, which OTHS School Resources Officer Jay Spanley said was there “to keep the students and everyone involved safe.”

Students initially were gathered around the main entrance of OTHS, located at 600 S. Smiley St., chanting phrases like “Benway for unemployment” and, “don’t take our teachers.” The reference was to District 203 Superintendent Darcy Benway.

Surrounded by a sea of students, Martha Weld, OTHS assistant superintendent, attempted to address student protester concerns over the cuts.

“If the amount of revenue you have coming into your home all of a sudden went down, and you have 10 items on your list, and you needed to cut something, correct, then you have to make the painful decisions about what to cut. So what we have been doing for the last eight years is making those decisions,” Weld told the students.

When asked how is it that the students are able to remain on school property but not attend classes during school hours, Benway replied, “They’re not supposed to, but I can’t stop them.”

“Certainly we don’t condone students missing school, missing their classes, but we do understand and respect their rights to protest. If they want to protest, we are trying to encourage them to do their civic duty in a respectful and organized manner,” Benway said.

The protest lasted about an hour, and the number of student protesters decreased over the course of the hour.

While about 100 students participated, others backed out “because they’re afraid of not being able to walk in graduation and not being able to go to prom,” Morgan said.

According to the OTHS student handbook, skipping school in groups is not the same as one student skipping because it creates unique problems. Therefore, the penalty will not be the same but will be determined by the circumstances surrounding the incident. The penalties range from suspension to seniors possibly losing the privilege of participating in the graduation ceremony.

“The teachers are with us on this, they just can’t be out here with us because they are scared their job will be on the line, too. Even some of our teachers told us they wouldn’t mark us tardy as long as its peaceful,” said student Julie Jordan.