D-156 passes balanced budget

McHENRY – For the first time in five years, District 156 is expecting a surplus.

The school board approved a budget with a slim surplus, $270,000 on a $34 million budget, at its meeting Monday evening.

"That's not much of a leeway," Superintendent Mike Roberts said.

The district has been inching its way toward a balanced budget since it started deficit spending over the 2009-10 fiscal year.

While it expected a $405,000 deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, it ended up being $900,000 in the black, Finance Director Dave Lawson said.

Part of the increase came from increased revenues, including a fifth payment of $500,000 from the state that the district hasn't received in four years, he said. Known as "categorical payments," they're intended to reimburse the district for transportation and special education costs.

The district has also reduced some of its expenses, including bringing its electric and gas bill down by $100,000 and bringing some special education services in-house, Lawson said.

Over the years, the district has also cut down on staff, at first through lay offs and then through voluntary attrition.

Since reaching a peak of 158 full-time-equivalent teaching positions, the district has eliminated 19.3 positions, Roberts said. It has 138.7 full-time equivalents this year.

Fewer teachers translates into larger class sizes, Roberts said. It was common for core classes to have 30 students in them, and some classes had as many as 35 students.

"Cutting 19 teachers over the years has caused some challenges," Roberts said. "We had to do it. Our teachers, under the last contract, they took reductions in salaries to get us to this point, where we're finally in the black, and that says a lot that our teachers and our board reached that."

Roberts doesn't see the district creating new teaching positions anytime soon unless enrollment picks up.

The district is down 62 students from last year and expects to stay around that level for the next several years, he said.

Because negotiations with the teachers union are still ongoing, the budget passed by the school board Monday assumes an increase of less than 3 percent, about the rate of inflation, across the board, Lawson said.

It does not include any major projects outside of the district's technology initiative, which includes purchasing new computers and tablets for teaching staff. The project is being funded with the categorical payment.

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