STERLING – Jim Brotheridge didn’t have to say it. The pain was written on the Sterling school board president’s face as he addressed the standing-room-only crowd at Wednesday’s board meeting in the Sterling High School library.
“This is an emotional issue,” Brotheridge said, then paused for a few seconds. “I want to thank you for coming tonight. Sterling is an excellent school district with excellent teachers, and we’re working to help students to become excellent. We all have a hard job to do.”
The job the board and administration is tasked with is plugging a projected $800,000 shortfall in the fiscal year 2017 budget. Ten cost-reducing options – from teacher, coach and administration reductions to eliminating program and class sections – were presented.
With no extra revenue expected, the absence of a state budget for 2016, let alone 2017, unknown salary increases and an anticipated 31-percent increase in insurance costs, the district faces a shortfall that is about half of its cash reserves.
Superintendent Tad Everett explained why deficit spending is a poor option. From 2011 to 2014, the district spent about $1 million in reserves each year, reducing the balance from $4.7 million to $1.4 million.
“Thank goodness we had reserves in fiscal year 11,” Everett said. “Imagine this board meeting if we didn’t have those reserves.”
Payroll is about $2 million a month, August through April.
“We have less than 30 days of cash on hand in our reserve, with no state budget,” Everett said. “Our job is to protect as many positions as we can.”
By state law, the board must decide whom to let go 45 days before the end of the school year. A reduction-in-force hearing will be held March 30, when those decisions are due.
None of the 10 options are final and specifics still are being ironed out, Everett said.
Among the options are a partnership with Sauk Valley Community College that would see five of the nine programs students enroll in at Whiteside Area Career Center shifted to Sauk, for a savings of about $50,000.
Also proposed is the elimination all Level-3 and -4 foreign language classes.
Among three residents who addressed the board was Marla Boynton, representing the foreign language department.
“When I walk by the French classroom at our school, I see students plugged in, looking at a screen – not each other – and it saddens me,” Boynton said. “That is not a language-learning, communicative environment.”
Restructuring the music program, fifth through 12th grade, is also proposed, and could result in a position being eliminated.
Amy Boze, who has kids in band and serves as an accompanist at Challand and Sterling High, told the board she’s seen the district go from 12 music teachers when she moved to town in 1996 to potentially five in the fall.
“You said you’re not cutting choir or madrigals, but you’re eliminating the only vocal specialist that’s left,” Boze said. “I just don’t see how that would be possible.”
Also proposed is Sterling High and Challand sharing a bilingual teacher, as well as elementary bilingual restructuring; restructuring Challand’s schedule, making it more of a junior high model; cutting six coaches across all the school’s sports, and eliminating the bass fishing program altogether; reducing expenses of conducting student registration; administrative reductions; and reducing a kindergarten section at Jefferson Elementary School.
That section was added for this school year, but a resignation opened a spot that would not be filled if the section were eliminated.
“Our elementary class sizes are at a maximum,” Everett said. “We’re not making reductions at the elementary level. It’s one of our highest priorities.”
Everett said he’s putting no stock into the state budget resolution.
“They’ve met fewer times this spring than in any spring session in the history of our state,” he said. “They’re not interested in solving the issue.”
That said, Brotheridge offered the crowd a reminder about the lack of a state budget.
“Don’t forget to talk to your legislator,” he said. “That’s a biggie. Tell your legislator you want this done, or they don’t get their vote. That might change their mind.”