RANTOUL - Kelli Sydes loves her children's school - so much so that she and her husband are at Pleasant Acres Elementary almost every day, helping out in some way.
She volunteers in the office, runs the book fair and handles the labels-and-boxtops program so Pleasant Acres can earn money for playground equipment or computer monitors. Her husband, Randy Sydes, works in the school cafeteria, helping kids open milk cartons or supplying extra quarters when they're short.
?We figure: If you're going to have kids in school, you have to be active and participate,? Kelli Sydes said.
Their 7-year-old, Grace, is in first grade, and 10-year-old Aaron, who has autism, is in fourth grade. Kelli Sydes works closely with all his teachers, and is especially fond of her son's personal aide, Donna Vogelsang, whom she calls ?incredible.?
So Sydes worries when she hears school officials talking about cuts totaling more than $1 million, about a tenth of Rantoul City Schools' budget. It would mean teacher layoffs, program cuts and class sizes in the mid-30s, compared with 22 to 24 now, Superintendent Bill Trankina said.
The district is asking voters to approve an 80-cent tax rate increase on April 1, but no one's willing to predict the outcome yet. The measure was voted down 1,789 to 1,614 in November.
?I can't imagine if this tax referendum doesn't pass,? Sydes said recently. ?Nobody feels safe.?
For years, the district received federal impact aid for Chanute Air Force Base, where military families sent their children to Rantoul schools but did not pay property taxes. Since the base closed in 1993, however, the district has struggled.
It already has made some cuts, absorbing three teaching positions and three teacher's aides through attrition. It has taken over its own bus transportation from an outside company, saving more than $100,000 a year.
But more serious cuts are under consideration for next year - 25 teaching jobs, the equivalent of 13 support staff positions and entire programs that aren't part of the core curriculum.
?We're looking, frankly, at everything,? Trankina said.
The nearly $1.1 million in cuts would include all extracurricular activities - bands and choral music, sports, scholastic bowl and student government. Music would continue to be taught in elementary classrooms, but not at Eater Junior High School, Trankina said.
All junior high courses that aren't required by the state would also be dropped - art, home economics, industrial arts and ICAN, a program to build self-esteem in part through volunteer work.
Support staff cuts include teacher's aides, custodians, secretaries and cafeteria staff, including several positions in the central administrative staff, Trankina said. Some cuts would be restored if the tax increase is approved, ?but not all,? he said.
Jane Jordahl, jazz band director at the junior high and an elementary music teacher, will still have a job next year. But she's out campaigning for the tax increase, and she has sensed more support since the cuts were announced.
?When you don't offer instrumental music or sports, it's difficult to attract new families to town,? she said. ?I live in town and I have three young children. This is really important to me.?
Elsewhere, new teachers are wondering whether they're going to have jobs next year, and senior staff members are concerned about bigger class sizes.
?I just think a lot of people are worried about what the future's going to hold for us. Our No. 1 concern is the type of education we can provide for these kids,? said Christie Fiedler, president of the district's teachers union and a Rantoul teacher for 24 years.
Her own kindergarten class has 21 students, and adding a dozen or more would restrict how much individual instruction she can give. Sessions where the children do movement to songs or tapes would be nearly impossible.
Sydes is worried about bigger classes and the music program, but her biggest fear involves her son's future.
Aaron has thrived since Vogelsang became his aide three years ago. Though extremely bright, affectionate and articulate, he is unable to write and lacks some social awareness.
?He would walk out in front of a car,? his mother said. ?He doesn't know it's there.?
He's in a regular classroom and receives no special academic considerations, other than extra time to complete a test, Sydes said. Vogelsang is with him all day, except lunch. She acts as his hands, writing down answers he dictates for tests or classroom work. And she may spend a little extra time explaining a math concept or a new reading term.
?He's probably one of the brightest kids in his class. He just needs help transitioning,? Vogelsang said.
Aaron likes to read the dictionary and has a keen interest in science. Last summer, he devoured textbooks on chemistry and biochemistry.
Vogelsang has taken a special interest in autism because of her work with Aaron, attending conferences and support groups.
?She really dedicated herself to one child,? Sydes said. ?They have a good bond. I would hate to see that disturbed in any way.?
Aaron is guaranteed an aide if it's required by his special education plan, but if the cuts go through, Sydes is unsure whether it would still be full time, one-on-one - and whether it would be Vogelsang.
The district has created a committee of parents, teachers and others to actively promote the tax increase on the April1 ballot. A recent meeting drew more than 100 supporters.
?I'm hopeful,? Trankina said, ?but I was hopeful last fall as well.?
The district has one of the lowest tax rates in the county, at $2.18 per $100 of assessed valuation. Most other grade school districts have rates closer to $3.
The 80-cent increase would nearly double the 92-cent education fund tax rate. For the owner of a $90,000 home, it would mean another $212 in annual property taxes.
It took six tries before Rantoul High School persuaded voters to approve a 45-cent increase in its tax rate in 1999. Voters may be wary of another tax increase so soon, officials said. And some don't understand that Rantoul has two school districts - one for the high school, which takes in surrounding towns, and one for elementary and junior high schools in Rantoul.
?Believe it or not, there's still a lot of people who don't differentiate between the two. That's a problem,? board President Jeff Schlueter said.
Some residents also see a new high school wing under construction and assume the schools are flush with money. Much of the funding for that project came from a state construction grant.
Sydes doesn't think people are unwilling to support schools, but they're concerned about where the money is going. Many residents are military retirees, and some younger voters just buying homes can't afford a bigger monthly payment to cover increased taxes, she said.
Lawyer Bill Scott, who's heading the citizens committee, said he's not insensitive to the concerns of retirees and others living on tight budgets.
?It's a given, nobody wants to pay more taxes. The amount the school district needs is sizable,? Scott said. ?I see it as just an investment in the future of our community. Basically, this is all about our kids and the quality of their life.?
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.