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Francis Howell begins year with no cuts planned

A full house waited on Aug. 5 for Francis Howell School District's reaction to the failure of Prop Y.

A full house waited on Aug. 5 for Francis Howell School District’s reaction to the failure of Prop Y.

No staff or transportation cuts for Francis Howell.

That’s the decision of the Francis Howell School District Board of Education – at least for now. But the district’s board and staff warned last week that a day of reckoning may be coming later this year and particularly in the 2016-17 school year. Those warnings come in light of a severe rebuff to a 90-cent property tax increase by voters on Aug. 3.

The board’s regular meeting two days after the election on Aug. 5 was the first chance for the district to react to the aftermath of Proposition Y’s defeat.

Before a crowd that spilled out of the meeting room at the administration building, the board opted not to implement a list of budget reductions yet and assured staff that they would have jobs entering the school year, which began on Aug. 11.

I have no desire to reduce staff this year,” said Board Vice President Rene Cope, whose comments were echoed by other board members. “They’re under contract, they expect to have a job, we’ve placed our students, school starts next week, move forward.”

Sloan said she was going to send an email to staff indicating that jobs were safe for now. Had cuts been made, about 60 positions would have been affected.

I would say yes (to preserving jobs), and I would say pray for people to retire,” said Board President Mark Lafata.

Six years of lowered property values, increased costs, a special tax levy expiring, and continued underfunding in state aid has hurt district finances, district officials say. Last year, the district found it faced a $22 million deficit.

To help remedy the situation, the board voted 5-2 to place the property tax increase – known as Prop Y – on the Aug. 3 ballot. Unofficial results show that the proposition received 6,663 votes or 33.77 percent to 13,065 votes or 66.23 percent against.

The district cut $8.2 million in staff and other expenses before the vote and board members said about $10.6 million in additional cuts needed to be made.

Before the board last week was a list of possible additional budget cuts that would have amounted to more than $20 million over the next two fiscal years. After staff reductions, the largest proposed cut was in reducing bus transportation to students living more than 3.5 miles away from their schools. The cut would affect about 7,600 of the district’s 17,000 students.

The board took no vote on specific budget reduction items, but transportation cuts may still be on the table when district staff come back to the board with new recommendations over the next few months.

I don’t want to tippy-toe around transportation,” Lafata said.

Sloan said staff will provide the board information on making no cuts until next year, a $5 million reduction in the budget deficit, another $1 million budget reduction during this school year, and options as far as transportation. But she and other district officials warned that budget reductions that include job cuts may be inevitable. About 85 percent of the district’s budget involves personnel.

Board ember Amy McEvoy said holding off until the second half of the year may give the district more time and a clearer indication of what the district’s finances are and what it needs to do.

We are okay for this year, next year we’re not okay,” McEvoy said, noting the she loved the district and the education it is providing her children.

My daughter gets to start learning Mandarin Chinese on Tuesday. You don’t know how excited she is about it,” she said. But her joyful praise was followed by an unhappy prediction.

Sloan said she wasn’t sure if the district could continue with Mandarin Chinese given the cuts that may be looming. A list given to the board includes $7.5 million in cuts for the 2015-16 fiscal year that range from $500,000 in professional development, $350,000 in wireless expansion, and $40,000 for a new teacher training program, along with job and transportation reductions.

The list also included $15.8 million proposed cuts during the 2016-17 school year, including $300,000 in district support for the Parents as Teachers Program, $250,000 for updating curriculum, and saving $2 million by implementing a four-day school week, along with staff cuts and cuts to transportation.

Board members said they wanted to avoid, as long as possible, cutting programs and items that directly affect children in the classroom. And Cope and other board members addressed the audience, asking residents to become informed and share their ideas to help meet challenge the district faces.

We need your help,” Cope said.

Lafata said the bottom line is that the district has to balance its budget over the next two years, noting that the tax increase is “not what the public wants to do.”

McEvoy, who with board member Mike Sommer cast the two votes against placing the tax increase on the ballot in May, said the board must work together.

This school district needs a tax increase but it needs one that all people can support,” she said. “We are a community and we have got to compromise and work together and honestly there are people on this board that will not.”

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