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Amended D161 budget could highlight transparency, fiscal responsibility

To ensure the district’s constituents members are working to provide a greater level of transparency, the Summit Hill School District 161 Board of Education discussed the prospect of amending its 2016-2017 budget during its March 22 regular meeting.

School officials intend to amend the 2016-2017 budget due to the settlement of certified staff contracts, finalization of State and federal funding allocations and retrieval of updated staffing information.

The board approved this year’s budget in July 2016, at which time the district’s operating fund consisted of $34,767,983 in revenue and $34,726,605 in expenditures. An amended budget, if approved, would show that school officials noted an increase in revenue to $35,521,141 and a decrease in expenditures to $34, 615, 689.

Director of Business and Transportation Doug Wiley said the biggest driver of revenues in the education fund is due, in part, to the final allocations of the State and federal aid. Other local revenue is to be amended also, he said.

“The best news in this is transportation fund revenue increased approximately $234,000, and that was due to the state aid being budgeted too low,” Wiley said.

Wiley said the district’s spending has remained relatively flat since adopting the budget, but he noted that he made some adjustments after working with estimates and seeing the actuals.

“Budgeted expenditures, they actually increased by about $73,000,” Wiley said. “We increased the budgeted salaries that we had in the original budget by 0.7 percent, and that brought that in line with what … employee groups actually received. We also accounted for the fact that certified staff is now paid 10 percent of the insurance premium that’s [agreed upon in the settlement].”

Board Vice President Stacey Borgens questioned the district’s basis for amending the budget to the revenue side and said it’s important to adhere to what the board originally approved.

“Due to that, I have always had a hard time amending a budget,” she said. “I mean, it’s just who I am, because I believe you put budget out there, and wherever you come down, that’s where it lands… I don’t know that I can go to amend the budget when legally you don’t have to.”

Board member Richard Ward agreed.

“I also would like to point out that I am really pleased that we have got this information,” he said. “I believe this is outstanding information, and it leads to transparency and lets us know where we’re going. I agree with Stacey that I don’t like amending budgets. I think this is probably very helpful for building a budget for next year.”

Marron said thought he understands the point raised by Borgen and Ward, he doesn’t want to reach the end of the year, have the fund balances increase by $150,000 and think they’ve done something good.

“I’m not dismissing what you’re saying, and I would be more worried about it if we were lowering the bar, but here we’re lifting it up and saying, ‘we’re going to judge ourselves and the entire district and the performance of our administration and finance against this new bar of $905,000,’” he said. “If we come in at the end of the year with $305,000 and our fund balances have gone up, that shouldn’t be a good thing compared to the [$41,000] where we’re going to compare it to the [$905,000.] I’d be more worried if we were going the other way, for sure.”

Wiley noted that other districts have amended budgets to hide expenditures and said they’re not doing that.

Marron said he’s pleased knowing the district is considering the idea of amending the budget.

“Either way, I’m glad we’re talking about it, because I have had many conversations that we have preceded in our businesses as a district under the assumption that we were darn near break-even,” he said. “Now, people are going to see that we’re $900,000 to the plus, and I want to explain that, because that wasn’t something we made up, it was based on the revenue numbers we had at the time. We got revenue rebates from the state, and we saw that coming, and [District] 843 and transportation.”

Borgens questioned the merit to be found in amending the budget when the audit at the year’s end will serve as evidence of the board’s fiscal responsibility.

Wiley said amending the current budget helps the district in the budget-planning process for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Board President Rich Marron said he also sees amending the budget as a way for the school district to raise the bar in its effort to show greater transparency.

“No matter what happens because of this conversation, our de facto budget is going to be the expectation of the $900,000 increase,” he said. “If that’s what we’re managing to, then that should be our official budget, and that makes everything line up.”

The district’s budget will be on display for the next 30 days, at which point the School Board will look to consider an amendment in April.

D161 board mulls transportation options

Also at that meeting, the D161 Board of Education continued its discussion of safety concerns raised for a student crossing St. Francis and Frankfort Square roads.

To date, one parent has expressed dissatisfaction with guidelines imposed by the Illinois Department of Transportation and written into school district policy, limiting busing options to students who live within a 1.5-mile radius of their respective school.

Borgens said she struggled with the idea that district officials may need to offer every student the same opportunity for busing, but she has given the matter further review.

“Whatever the situation may be, I think that we have always done our best as a district to put the children first,” she said.

Borgens added that there could be situations where bus ridership should be extended to students with extenuating circumstances or parents who may not realize the options afforded to their child.

Ward said it still raises a concern if the district seeks to go beyond the guidelines asserted by IDOT.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers, and the state reimburses us based on people who are outside of 1.5 miles,” he said.

Borgens recognizes this and said she is not disagreeing.

“There are very few exceptions,” she said.

The current D161 policy is written such that 579 students are required to walk to school. If the board decides to extend busing to all children regardless of distance, that would cost the district $290,000.

IDOT typically will take the district’s total transportation cost, which is currently sitting at about $1.3 million dollars for Summit Hill, and apply a formula to that. The district is asked for information on how many students are and are not eligible for busing, and those numbers are used to determine what expenses can be reimbursed.

Marron suggested that school district officials say the bus stops within the district are open to students who are within 1.5 miles, but they have to go into district office and fill out paperwork and said officials can track who they are.

This information collected would go to the director of transportation, followed by the superintendent, for review and consideration on a case-by-case basis. It is not the district’s intent to add bus routes.

“We do with fees and anything else—whether they’re registration or sport fees—we offer some waiver if there’s something that needs to be considered without taking board action,” Marron said.

If such a measure were to go into effect next school year, board policy would need to be updated to make it clear that officials can extend waivers.

There are a number of existing exceptions to the 1.5-mile rule, one being that a student who possesses an individualized education plan can be granted bus ridership.

Board member Pam Kohlbacher questioned if the district is still putting itself at risk for not being eligible for reimbursement.

Marron refuted the concern.

“If we got, for example, 10 students who do this, on the reimbursement form that we see, we would have to list 10 riders, which we would not eligible for reimbursement,” he said. “That’s why this is the only thing I can think of to prevent from having to claim [579 students].”

Board member George Leonard suggested that officials assess a fee to students who are granted waivers.

Board member David Faber said he is afraid such an idea would be “opening Pandora’s Box.”

Further discussion of the matter will take place at the board’s April 12 meeting.

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