O’Fallon Township High School is facing a “financial crisis,” according to Superintendent Darcy Benway.
The district has already made almost $4 million in cuts since the 2010-11 fiscal year, and it hopes to make another $1 million in cuts to next year’s budget, Benway said. As the District 203 School Board has been looking for places to make these cuts, Benway said it noticed some other metro-east schools don’t offer swimming and lacrosse programs, including Collinsville and East St. Louis.
“Other schools in our area don’t have the financial resources to offer those. Well, we’re finding that we don’t have the financial resources, maybe, as well,” Benway said.
The swimmers and lacrosse players at O’Fallon Township High School have been told their programs might not be offered next year. But Benway said the school board is “passionate about finding a way to keep them.” As a former Division I swimmer, Benway said she’s disappointed, too. She had a full-ride scholarship for swimming when she attended the University of Kansas.
“I hate the thought of not having a swim team here,” Benway said. But she said the district is projecting a $2.3 million deficit for next year.
“There is an option to do nothing, but do we really like the consequences that that’s going to produce down the line?” she said. Benway’s background is in both education and accounting, according to her LinkedIn profile.
“Sometime in the 2020-21 school year, we’ll run out of cash to operate,” if no action is taken, Benway said.
District 203 shared more information about proposed budget cuts with the public Thursday night during the school board meeting. Benway stressed that no decisions have been made; board members have not yet been asked to vote on any cuts.
Swimmers, lacrosse players, coaches and parents were among those in attendance at the crowded meeting to express their concerns.
“Please do not cut our program,” said Max Gibbs, a swimmer and junior at O’Fallon, addressing the school board. Gibbs said the team has felt disappointment, betrayal and sadness since learning it could be the final year for the sport.
A district parent, Matt Lloyd, said the fact that other schools don’t offer lacrosse and swimming shouldn’t make them “expendable.”
“I would argue it’s the other way; it’s our strategic advance,” he said. “... We need to be different. These are two great programs that differentiate us from Lebanon, Mascoutah, Belleville.”
Jennifer Gaab, another parent, read a statement from all parents of the girls and boys lacrosse teams, asking the board to consider other options that avoid cutting the programs. Several speakers asked the school board to spread the financial burden across all athletic programs rather than cutting two completely. Benway said some clubs and other activities could also be cut to address the deficit.
Students might also see an increase in their class sizes next year; however, Benway said the district would try to keep general classes to fewer than 30 students.
The school board is looking at making cuts to administrative and teaching staff, increasing fees and applying for grant money when it’s available.
“We feel doing nothing is not an option,” said School Board President Lynda Cozad of the deficit.
Benway said the district is considering a 9-to-10-percent reduction in administrative staff, a 6-to-7-percent reduction in teaching staff and the elimination of two to three non-certified positions.
District 203 has also looked at options such as consolidating with feeder schools, but Benway said that hasn’t solved the financial problems at other local schools.
“Let’s talk about Edwardsville. ... They’re going out for a tax referendum. Guess what? They’re broke,” she said. “If consolidation were the silver bullet, this board of education would be all about it. All indications that we see in any analysis is that it’s going to cost us more money.”
Benway said District 203 discussed an education fund referendum like the one in Edwardsville, but heard from taxpayers that they’d be opposed to an increase in property taxes.
How did District 203 get here?
Like other school districts in Illinois, O’Fallon District 203 has suffered from a lack of payments from the state.
During the last 10 years, the state’s contribution to the district’s revenue has decreased from 34 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2015, according to Illinois Report Card data. In that same time frame, District 203 opened its Milburn freshmen campus to address overcrowding at its Smiley campus and has faced an increase in unfunded mandates, which are new requirements for schools that the state doesn’t help pay for.
All employees faced salary freezes in fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13, and Benway said they could face freezes again.
Mike Day, president of the O’Fallon teachers union, said educators also previously offered to take cuts to their insurance, which saved the district millions and cost individual teachers thousands.
Benway said the district is using money from its reserves this year and would continue to tap into the reserves next year. Because the deficit is projected to be $2.3 million, Benway said even with $1 million in cuts, the district would have to use $1.3 million in reserves to cover costs.