Cut all fat before going to voters

If only the Niles Board of Education and Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen had considered implementing the spending cuts they now are discussing before asking the public to consider an illogical and unrealistic 9.25-mill emergency operating levy in November, they might have saved the district, the board of elections and the voters a lot of time and effort.

The district was returned to fiscal caution just about a year after the state released it from fiscal watch in June 2016. By September 2016, the district had handed out raises to all Niles City Schools employees. Contracts with the unions representing teachers and other staff — such as bus mechanics, bus aides, cafeteria and custodial personnel, administrative assistants and educational assistants — took effect in September 2016 and extended through August 2019.

Now the district is scrambling to pass an emergency operating levy to help bail it out again.

The district faces an approximate $340,000 deficit for fiscal year 2018 and a projected $1.3 million deficit for fiscal year 2019. The levy would help shore up projected deficits and school leaders say an additional $700,000 in savings would be realized through elimination of one administrative position, four teachers and two other nonteaching positions like custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers or secretaries.

The smaller-millage levy and job cuts are part of a fiscal caution plan the board approved. The plan won’t receive the state’s blessing, however, until the district has three years of projected positive balances for fiscal years 2018-20. If that doesn’t occur, the district will once again be placed in fiscal watch.

November’s 9.25-mill levy failed miserably with 70 percent of voters predictably saying “No.” Now the district will seek a 10-year, 5.8-mill levy that, if passed, would generate about $1.3 million and cost the owner of a $100,000 home approximately $210 in additional annual taxes. With November’s overwhelming defeat, voters sent a message that not only did they not support the large tax increase, they questioned its need.

When asked about the issue before the November election, Thigpen said if the operating levy failed, then the district will be faced with tough decisions. We think the district should have been dealing with those tough decisions long before turning to the voters.

The Niles Board of Education needs to prove to voters that it is acting as good stewards of the public’s money. We’re not sure district residents will have the trust in the board to pass this levy, and before the board goes forward with it, they should ensure they have cut every possible ounce of fat from their expenditures.

That always should be the first step before asking taxpayers to absorb shortfalls with funds from their own household budgets.