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Toluca residents voice concerns over attendance centers

Tuesday, October 28, 2003 Posted 10:30 p.m.
Over 150 people jammed into Capponi's banquet room at Toluca Tuesday night to voice their concerns over attendance centers within the Fieldcrest school district. School board president Jeff Pickard moderated the meeting and fielded the questions of the concerned citizens. Pickard told the crowd that the school board has nothing to hide and is openingly sharing its discussions and approach to resolving the current financial crisis with residents of the Fieldcrest community. He stated that we are here to build a better community and the board is examining what we need to do to resolve the school's financial crisis. Pickard stated that we are in the idea stage and nothing has been decided as of now.

Pickard said that the school district was financially solvent until 2001 when farm prices and interest rates were up and the stock market was at its peak. During that time the district built two new buildings. However, revenues started to taper off when the economy stalled while expenses continue to rise, especially health insurance and workmans compensation costs. He said that farm values started to drop in 2002 and since farmland constitutes 60% of the land value within the school district, state revenues started to drop. Subsequently, the board had to make some cuts. Home Economics and art were cut to save costs. In an attempt to increase revenues, a tax referendum was placed on the ballot but was rejected 2 to 1 by the voters. Pickard said that now the school district is $1,000,000 in debt. The board decided to stop funding extracurriculars which will save approximately $250,000. Pickard said that the board must still find another $750,000 in cuts somewhere in order to balance the budget.

Pickard said that a study on attendance centers could save the school almost $250,000. He said that Midland and Putnam County have successfully adopted attendance centers. However, another $500,000 still needs to be cut and the answers to the problem will only become more difficult. Pickard stated that things in Springfield have to change. He said that Chicago area schools are not hurting for money but the smaller rural school districts are all undergoing a financial crisis. Pickard said that he can envision a school located in El Paso that will service students from Tonica to Hudson. He said that the state seems to be encouraging the smaller schools to consolidate so that they won't have so many schools to worry about.

There were many questions asked by the large crowd. One woman felt that K through 2 should be K thru 3 when determining learning sites. She said that some families may have 3 kids going to 3 different schools on 3 different buses. Another person asked how can savings be attained through attendance centers if the school still has the same number of buildings and the same number of buses? Pickard replied that combining classes will reduce the number of teachers needed.

Another woman asked if the school board considered the adoption of attendance centers to be penny wise and pound foolish. She said that the Toluca residents will very likely vote against another referendum if they know that they will lose their middle school. A Toluca councilman said that the school cannot keep taxing people. He said that we need to find another source of revenue. He suggested that the school eliminate the redunancy in administrators. He felt that the school needs a long term solution and not depend on the state to bail us out. Board president Pickard said that the school needs to have at least one administrator at each school to watch over things.

Superintendent Michael Stagliano said that the school is looking at long term solutions including a possible merger with the Flanagan school district. However, a person commented that we don't need Flanagan. The district is big enough now. Stagliano said that the state may eventually come up with a more equitable taxing method for funding education. In addition, Stagliano added that the school is looking to have a more conservative contract with the teachers at their next bargaining.

A person wanted to know how much debt the school could accumulate before it can be taken over by the state. Superintendent Stagliano said that the school is on the state's financial earning warning list and if the school reaches $3 million in debt, that it will probably be taken over by the state.

Another person mentioned that the school cannot aleniate 1/3 of its customer base and expect to receive support from that community. He said that we are not bad people just because we are against attendance centers. Pickard replied that if the school was in the black, we wouldn't being looking at attendance centers.

A person asked if a tax referendum would eliminate the need for attendance centers. Pickard said that he doesn't know if a tax referendum would eliminate attendance centers. However, he said that by passing a tax referendum it would make attendance centers less likely. One person said that if the board is asking for a .90 increase in the tax rate, that you are wasting your time. He said that the school cannot continue giving 3-5 % raises to teachers and administrators when everyone else is getting 1 or 2 % raises. He said the school needs to get into the real world with the rest of us and make some cuts. Stagliano said the school does not want to lose its good teachers and also compromise the quality of education. He added that the economy needs to pick up and farm values need to increase. He said that a referendum would be a good start for recovery but expenses need to be controlled and the state needs to change the way it funds education.

Dr. Stagliano said that almost 1/3 of the money in the school's budget comes from the state - or $2,500,000.

A woman said that Toluca's restaurant will lose a lot of business if sports events are taken away from the schools in that town. She said that Minonk and Wenona always seem to get what they want while Toluca has to settle for less. Another woman said that attendance centers will increase the amount of bussing of her children.

In response to when decisions must be made on the budget, Superintendent Stagliano said that the decision on whether to propose another referendum must be made by January 16. He stated that the decision on whether or not to use attendance centers will be made by January also.