O’Fallon community makes plea to avoid teacher cuts at high school

Superintendent Darcy Benway explains the deficit O’Fallon Township High School District 203 faces during the Feb. 16, 2017, school board meeting.
Superintendent Darcy Benway explains the deficit O’Fallon Township High School District 203 faces during the Feb. 16, 2017, school board 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 Tuesday night 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.

Many people who, like Logan, are opposed to the cuts spoke during the special meeting on Tuesday.

After they heard from the community, 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.

“Somewhere in the next five years, we’re going to run out of cash,” Benway said. “... Budget cuts are going to have to be made. The numbers don’t lie.”

The school board was also looking at cuts to administrative staff and the possible elimination of the high school’s swimming and lacrosse programs. District 203 has also looked at options like consolidating with feeder schools, but Benway previously said that hasn’t solved the financial problems at other schools in the area.

The current proposal comes after Benway said the district has 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.

Mike Day, president of the O’Fallon teachers’ union, told the board he thought it 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 during the meeting. 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 school board is looking at a 6-7 percent reduction in teaching staff, which Day said is the equivalent of 10 full time positions. That could mean layoffs for some teachers as well as moves from full-time to part-time for other teachers, he said.

Some other options that Day said the board should consider instead are looking for new revenue or falling back on reserves, which Benway said will be an estimated $9.4 million by the end of this school year. Another option is attrition, or not replacing some teachers when they retire, Day said.

Alley Johnson, a 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.

Logan said teachers at O’Fallon Township High School 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.

The District 203 School Board discussed the proposal for several hours Tuesday night. They did not return to the public meeting for a vote before deadline.