Education

As school district considers budget cuts, 2 sports ‘on chopping block’

O'Fallon girls swim coach talks about proposed budget cuts at the school

O’Fallon Township High School in O’Fallon IL, in Southern Illinois near St. Louis MO, hopes to cut $1 million from its budget as it plans for the 2017-18 school year because it faces a $2.3 million deficit. That could mean the end of the school’s
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O’Fallon Township High School in O’Fallon IL, in Southern Illinois near St. Louis MO, hopes to cut $1 million from its budget as it plans for the 2017-18 school year because it faces a $2.3 million deficit. That could mean the end of the school’s

O’Fallon Township High School hopes to cut $1 million from its budget as it plans for the 2017-18 school year, according to information provided by District 203.

And that could mean the end of the school’s swimming and lacrosse programs. Suzanne Gibson, the girls swimming head coach, said she got the news Friday.

“The athletic programs were notified late last week about the proposed cuts,” Gibson said. “We’re on a ‘menu of options,’ meaning it’s not a for sure thing, but we’re on the chopping block.”

Superintendent Darcy Benway said Tuesday the board is “considering all possible options at this time.” Benway is expected to provide more information about potential budget cuts at the next board meeting, according to School Board President Lynda Cozad.

The school board meets at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Instructional Media Center at the Smiley campus, 600 S. Smiley St., in O’Fallon. Cozad said the information will be available on the district’s website after the meeting for everyone who was not able to attend.

Other board members, including Vice President Mark Christ, Steve Dirnbeck and Brett Schuette, did not respond to News-Democrat requests for comment.

Information provided by the school district stated that it faces a $2.3 million deficit. Less money from the state and more unfunded mandates are among the issues that contributed to that deficit.

“If the district takes no action, and if model assumptions are reasonably accurate, the district will exhaust all reserves and will not have cash to operate during fiscal year 2021,” a District 203 PowerPoint presentation stated.

Personnel reductions and potential salary freezes are being considered to cut costs, as well as reductions in operating or extracurricular budgets. The swimming and lacrosse programs are not specifically mentioned in literature provided by the district.

We’re on a ‘menu of options,’ meaning it’s not a for sure thing, but we’re on the chopping block.

Suzanne Gibson, girls swimming coach, on the possibly the program will be cut

Gibson said the school board is considering cutting those programs because swimming and lacrosse are not Southwestern Conference teams.

“It was an easy cut in their eyes because ... the travel expenses are greater because we have to travel farther distances to get to our competition,” she said.

But Matt Lloyd, a parent in the district, takes issue with that reasoning.

“Using non-conference as the justification seems incorrect because every sport travels,” he said.

Lloyd’s daughter, Caitlin, is a member of the swimming team. The girls have not traveled farther than Springfield this year, according to Gibson.

“I hosted three home meets this year, and we traveled to Edwardsville five times. So we actually don’t travel all over to get competition,” she said. “Unfortunately, we just compete against the same people over and over.”

Max Gibbs, a member of the boys swimming team, said he was upset to learn a championship meet Saturday might be the last time he is able to compete with O’Fallon Township High School.

“There’s extra emotion now,” Max said, “and you’re upset because this could be your last meet with everyone on the team.”

If the district takes no action ... the district will exhaust all reserves and will not have cash to operate during fiscal year 2021.

O’Fallon Township High School District 203 PowerPoint presentation on the deficit

Of the estimated 1,000 high school students who play sports, Gibson said more than 120 are swimmers and lacrosse players. Lloyd said the sports can actually draw families to O’Fallon because they are not offered at many metro-east schools.

“I know people who have picked this district specifically for those programs,” Lloyd said.

Jeff Maher’s family is one example. His twin daughters, Adler and Riley, play on the lacrosse team. Maher recently sent a statement to Cozad, the school board president, explaining the family’s choice to enroll at O’Fallon Township High School.

“I am Catholic and strongly considered sending my daughters to Althoff (Catholic High School), but the deciding factor was their ability to play lacrosse at OTHS,” Maher wrote. “It’s one of the things that truly makes our school stand out.”

Maher said his family moved from Columbia, Mo., to O’Fallon’s school district because of its reputation. During that transition, the sport helped his daughters as they adjusted from a small Catholic school to the larger public school.

“Having that lacrosse community, they had a place where they felt like they belonged right off the bat,” Maher said in an interview.

While the school’s lacrosse team has previously been considered non-conference, Maher said it would have the opportunity to play in Illinois conferences starting in 2018 because the sport recently became state-sanctioned.

“The sport itself is growing nationwide,” he said.

District 203 would have a new source of revenue if a St. Clair County sales tax referendum passes in April. That money could be used toward school facilities costs and construction debt, which some districts have argued could decrease property taxes. District 203 plans to use 50 percent of its share to provide property tax relief, according to information provided by the district.

The school board is also looking at increasing fees for things like registration to help with the deficit.

Gibson said she would like to see the board consider budget cuts that do not eliminate entire programs.

“Let’s squeeze everyone and see what has the least amount of impact on the children,” she said.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

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