UPDATED: District 113A Holds Off on Hiring Additional Teachers, Awaits Response from State
District officials have contacted the Illinois State Board of Education about the possibility of amending the district's financial plan to hire additional teachers for the 2012-13 school year.
Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A will move forward with a plan to replace 12 retiring teachers for the upcoming school year while the board waits to hear whether the state will allow the hiring of an additional five.
District 113A school board members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a certified staffing plan that would include no additional hires for the 2012-13 school year. The second option considered by the board—to add five positions using the savings from the retiring teachers—was tabled.
With District 113A expecting to save approximately $537,805 from the retirees, school board members have been discussing the possibility of using part of the savings to hire additional teachers and reduce class sizes. However, any changes to the staffing plan would require an update to the district's financial plan, which must be approved by the Illinois State Board of Education.
As of Tuesday, the district was still waiting to hear whether ISBE officials would accept another amendment to the financial plan. The state board approved the most recent version in January.
Could District 113A's requests lead to financial oversight?
In February, the board directed Interim Superintendent Robert Madonia to contact state officials regarding the certified staffing plan, as well as as possible working cash bond.
Madonia said he initially contacted ISBE Division Administrator for Business Services Deb Vespa, who shot down both ideas. However, she later directed him to contact State Superintendent Christopher Koch, which Madonia did on Feb. 27.
A response from ISBE Chief Financial Officer Linda Riley Mitchell was sent to the district March 20, and was discussed during a board meeting that same night.
In the letter—which Patch obtained last month through a Freedom of Information Act request—Mitchell wrote that ISBE officials "are deeply concerned that (District 113A is) already seeking significant revisions to the financial plan submitted to the state board in January."
"Please understand that any changes to District 113A's financial plan must be deliberately and thoughtfully considered. In other conversations, the District has made clear that it would like to avoid a Financial Oversight Panel in accordance with provisions of 1A-8 and 1H of the School Code. If you require monthly intervention and consultation with the State Board prior to taking action, perhaps a Financial Oversight Panel should be considered for District 113A."
Koch expressed similar concerns in a memo to the state board in January.
District 113A approved three amended financial plans in 2011 (June 28, Aug. 30 and, most recently, Dec. 7). During each of the meetings, former District 113A Superintendent Tim Ricker indicated that the financial plan needed to be amended to include updated cash flow projections and information on tax anticipation warrants.
The district learned in August 2011 that it was being considered for a financial oversight panel, which—through legislation—places school districts under state oversight when they are certified in financial difficulty and unable to sustain a state-approved financial plan.
ISBE officials ultimately decided to delay the discussion, but said they would review District 113A's budget, audit and financial plan to assess its "financial soundness.
During the March 20 meeting, Board Secretary Cindy Kelly referenced Mitchell's statement in her letter to the district, and expressed concern that the state might move forward with financial oversight if the district continues to amend its plan.
"I want to keep local control of our district, which will happen as long as we follow the state-approved plan," Kelly wrote in a letter to Patch on Sunday. "If we do so, we will be able to start re-hiring teachers and reducing class sizes during the 2013-14 school year."
However, based on the district's current financial position, Madonia said he thinks it's "highly unlikely" the state would implement an FOP in Lemont.
"There's no question that the statement was made, but I think it was made tongue in cheek and had to do with the number of revisions in the past," he said. "We take the state's response very seriously, but our financial position is on a course that's excellent. I don't believe the state would implement financial oversight when we're moving in a positive direction."
Weighing the cost of five additional teachers
Some District 113A board members have publicly supported the possibility of hiring more teachers for the upcoming school year—including Board President Mike Aurelio and Board Member Al Malley.
In a phone interview Sunday, Aurelio said he thinks District 113A is in a good position to use part of the $537,805 to reduce the impact of large class sizes in the district's three schools. He has consistently voted against the current financial plan, which he says "is extremely aggressive."
"We have a plan that gives us a huge surplus in a really short amount of time," Aurelio said. "ISBE has expressed concern about the aggressiveness of this plan and the impact it's had on class sizes, and I share their concern. I would like to adjust the plan and bring some much-needed relief to classrooms in a fiscally responsible way."
During the March 20 meeting, board members Lisa Wright and Kevin Doherty said the district should conduct a thoughtful analysis of all possible expenditures before hiring additional staff. In addition to studying the financial impact of hiring teachers, the board should also consider the possibility of using funds for transportation or replacing outdated textbooks, Wright said.
"We simply haven't prioritized our expenditures for the upcoming year," she said. "The only thing that has worked is the (financial plan). We are where we are because it has been effective. Why can't we continue to respect that plan?"
Despite the board's disagreement, they ultimately directed Madonia to answer the state's questions on class sizes, salaries, revenues and expenditures, with an additional note that District 113A intends to develop a long-range plan in the near future.
Madonia sent a response to the state April 12. Patch obtained the letter Friday through a FOIA request.
In his response, Madonia said the cost of hiring five additional teachers would be approximately $266,801, meaning only half of the savings from the retired teachers would be used toward building fund balances.
"Right now, we're anticipating one more round of borrowing this year, and we should be off the financial watch list by June 30, 2013," Madonia said. "Our fund balances are in a good position, so I think using part of the savings to address the academic needs of our students would be a positive thing for the district."
On Tuesday, Asst. Superintendent Mary Gricus said the positions would be added to kindergarten, second grade, fourth grade, fifth grade and seventh grade.
According to the letter from Madonia to the state, class sizes would be reduced from 32.1 to 25 in kindergarten, 29.5 to 26.2 in second grade, 32 to 30.7 to fourth, 35.4 to 31 in fifth and 36.6 to 32.6 in seventh.
District 113A awaits response from state
On Tuesday, Madonia said he was still waiting to hear from Mitchell regarding the staffing plan and working cash issue.
During the report, Doherty noted for the record that he objects to Madonia's response, which he said was "incomplete."
According to Doherty, the expenditure and revenue projections included with the letter do not reflect the liability from two recent transportation audits. The total adjustment was $589,956, but approximately $100,000 has already been prorated from reimbursements for the current school year.
"I thought the presentation did not include all known liabilities, and that could be misleading," Doherty said.
Madonia said the liability was not included in his letter to ISBE officials because they were the ones who conducted the audit, and therefore should be aware of the adjustment. He also said the projections wouldn't be affected by the liability if the district is able to issue a funding bond to pay off the remainder of its debt to the state.
When the first $328,956 adjustment was made late last year, state officials decided to deduct District 113A's transportation reimbursements by one-third of the total amount for the next three years. A similar option could be available for the second adjustment, Madonia said.
However, the district is also seeking approval from the state to utilize $1.6 million in the bond and interest fund. Madonia said the district could eliminate the entire debt by issuing a funding bond for the appropriate amount.
If the state should give District 113A the go-ahead on one or both of its inquires, the board would have to formally approve the measures during an upcoming board meeting.
"So far the board has only directed me to correspond with the state, which is what I've done," Madonia said. "In terms of any action, that will be up to the board to vote and decide what they want to do. I will support whatever the majority of the board approves."
For now, Gricus said the administration will begin finalizing individual assignments for certified staff members so they can be distributed to staff by the contractual date of May 1.
Gricus will then follow the procedures outlined in the Illinois School Code to conduct a recall of certified staff who were honorably dismissed during last year's reduction in force. Any vacancies that remain after assigning current and recalled staff will be posted on the District 113A website.