District´s goal: Cut $3 million

URBANA - Cutting $3 million from Urbana schools' budget the next two years will take creative thought and resolute action, school board members say.

They met last Saturday to review the options and draft a list of preliminary actions, a list school board President Tina Gunsalus says is likely to change often during the budget-trimming process.

?The first rule when you're in a hole is stop digging,? Gunsalus told board members attending a study session Tuesday. ?We hope to address the issues, adopt a plan and get the pain behind us as soon as possible.

?We plan to hold the children front and center.?

Gunsalus earlier outlined some of the considerations at the heart of board members' recent discussion about how to tackle cuts recommended to add up to $3 million in the next two years - $2 million of them the first year. A second Saturday meeting is scheduled early in February.

?We agreed to use that $3 million figure as the basis for going forward because we have to start someplace,? she said. ?We also discussed the fact that the education fund is roughly 85 percent personnel expenditures, also as a starting place. We talked about the differences between operating deficits and accumulated operating debt, and we talked about updating the status of the tax base.?

Operating under those guidelines, board members talked about cutting about $1 million in certified staff expenses. They talked about reducing clerical positions and some administrative jobs, and about reducing travel, membership, copying, cellphone and other expenses.

?We tried to brainstorm about developing incentives to encourage people to reduce leave time,? Gunsalus said. ?If we can save substitute costs, we figure we could save two teachers. Everyone would be better off.?

Board members talked about how to get more money.

?We're reluctant to go in some of the ways like raising fees,? Gunsalus said.

?We're large enough so we have a fair amount of turnover, but we're also talking about some painful reductions,? Gunsalus said. ?We reaffirmed our unanimous commitment to do everything we can to do what we have to do through turnover and attrition.?

Board and administration members have asked teachers and other personnel in all schools for suggestions about how to solve budget problems with the least amount of pain.

The numbers driving the cuts tell a story of what happens when government backing drops at the same time investment income hits the skids. The district ended the 2001-02 school year with a $1 million deficit in the education fund. It's anticipating adding $1.3 million to that deficit by the end of the 2002-03 school year, and another $825,000 by the end of the next school year.

District accountants say the chief reasons for that bleak picture are: tax caps, which cost the district an estimated $735,000 in income; corporate personal property tax declines of about $107,000; interest rate declines; and a $348,105 loss in state aid.

To control costs this school year, the board has already made cuts that amounted to $766,000 by eliminating six elementary teachers, a move that increased class size from 20 students to about 22.5 students, and three teachers at the middle and high schools.

Other measures included eliminating one elementary assistant principal's job, paying math equity enrichment program expenses with federal money, cutting library clerk and cataloging services in half and eliminating one fine arts teacher's position.

The list also included making minor cuts in the curriculum office, in special education programs and in community involvement, mentoring and nursing technician positions.

Principals of the district's elementary schools outlined their priorities for the new round of cuts in a letter submitted recently to the board.

They said they believe literacy is the key to academic success and requested the board consider three actions they believe will help all students meet or exceed state standards:

- Allocating budgetary resources to schools differentially based on the needs of the students at the individual schools.

- Maintaining elementary class sizes as low as possible, especially in elementary schools, to help ensure student success and close achievement gaps.

- Maintaining full-time social workers in each school to achieve the same goals.

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