District 230 sweating out state budget battle

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

Members of the District 230 School Board were keeping a close eye on the negotiations underway in Springfield as they set the schedule for their own budget calendar for the 2018 budget schedule last week.

The board agreed at its June 29 meeting to hold the public hearing for the fiscal year 2018 budget at its Sept. 28 meeting, being held at 7 p.m. at Andrew High School, 9001 W. 171st St., Tinley Park. According to the schedule, the tentative budget must be available for public review by Aug. 28.

When the board passed its $130 million operating budget last fall, Superintendent James Gay noted that it marked the 14th consecutive balanced budget for the district, since 2003-04, and fourth year in a row that the district had not raised its tax levy. But he and John Lavelle, assistant superintendent of business services, acknowledged that keeping that streak going is not helped by the uncertainty in Springfield, where lawmakers are entering the third year without passing a budget.

“I don’t want to create panic,” said Gay, stressing that District 230 high schools, Andrew, Sandburg and Stagg, will be opening on time whether or not there is a state budget in place. “We are able to open because of our fiscal responsibility over the years,” he said.

However, he said the state’s inability to pay bills has affected the district.

“They owe us $1.6 million in categoricals,” said Gay, referring to the quarterly payments the state pays the district for mandated costs, including transportation, special education and reduced-price lunches.

Lavelle said the district is still owed two of the four quarterly payments.

“When we do the budget, we assume we are getting our categoricals. Is it better to plan on not getting them?” asked board member Tony Serratore.

“It would be very difficult to get a balanced budget without them,” said Lavelle, pointing out that categorcials amount to more than $4 million in total. After the meeting, he said that when drawing up the budget for the coming year, he will probably factor in the outstanding categoricals owed the district, and at least some of the ones that will be coming due.

Gay said he and the other district officials are kept apprised of the ongoing budget talks in Springfield. “There are a lot of moving parts,” but the chances of a state budget being passed any time soon “look gloomy,” he predicted.

The superintendent said he was “shocked” by the sudden resignation of state Sen. Christine Radogno (R-41st), the Senate minority leader, which went into effect Saturday. “Christine Radogno is a very good person. She has been a good friend to our district.”

District 230 receives 85 percent of its funding from property taxes, 10 percent from the state and 5 percent from federal funding. So Gay said the district would be hurt by a permanent property tax freeze advocated by Gov. Rauner as part of budget negotiations. He was told that the two-year freeze approved by the Senate will not be voted on in the House.

“The reason we’re opposed to it is our funding would be drastically affected. All of us want fair funding. Including our partner schools, 25,000 students would be affected,” said Gay, referring to the elementary and junior high schools that feed into the District 230 high schools.

Financially, “$39 million over four years is how it would affect us,” said Gay.

“We want to be good stewards of tax money. We’re already doing bonds and really lowering property taxes,” said the superintendent, referring to a $4.5 million bond issue discussed at the May meeting and formally approved last week. It will result in a drop of more than 21 cents per $100 of assessed value in the district, according to officials. This will result in a reduction of $127 in annual property taxes levied by the district for median-priced homes in the district.

School Board President Rick Nogal credited the board’s “fiscal integrity and prudent financial management” for the AA1 rating assigned by Moody’s credit agency that made the reduction possible.