State owes Orion schools more than $1 million

Mindy Carls
Superintendent's office, Orion Community Unit School District 223

“The crisis in state funding is far from resolved,” Orion Superintendent David Deets told the Orion school board on Wednesday, July 21.

He said a couple of more tough years lie ahead.

Boiling down 120 pages of financial data, the superintendent presented board members with a four-page summary of the district’s financial condition at the end of the 2009-10 budget year.

Orion finished with a deficit of $140,000, he said.

The state shorted the district more than $400,000 in education, operations and maintenance, and transportation, the superintendent said.

“We really only have control over one thing, and that’s how we spend money,” Deets said.

School boards can ask taxpayers for more money, but a referendum like that usually is not successful, he said.

In 2009-10, the district budgeted $9.9 million for the education, operations and maintenance, and transportation funds, Deets said.

The district spent $9.4 million, or $500,000 less than it budgeted, he said.

“This year we tightened our belt,” Deets said. “We managed our spending as well as any district.”

As a superintendent, 2009-10 was the best year he has ever had for cutting expenses.

He said he did not want to think of the $500,000 as money saved. Instead, it was $500,000 not spent.

The district did not use all of its contingency funds, he said. The budget always includes 2 or 3 percent to cover unforeseen situations, such as needing to hire an aide for a student in special education.

Orion borrowed $1.4 million for roof repairs, Deets said. Ideally, the district would have enough money put away to cover such expenses without borrowing.

What the district pays in interest on a $1.4 million loan could be used for something else, the superintendent said.

During the spring, administrators and board members dismissed or reassigned some teachers in an attempt to close a $750,000 hole in the 2010-11 budget.

Some district residents suggested the district spend down its reserves in order to keep band and choir teachers full time, or to retain physical education teacher Chris Zentic at C.R. Hanna Elementary School.

Deets pointed out that the state should be sending Orion $3 million a year.

In 2007-08, state payments were $10,000 less than expected, the superintendent said. Since then, the state has shorted Orion $877,000 just in the education fund.

The state should be making four payments totaling $380,000 a year for transportation, Deets said. During the last three years, the state has missed one payment a year.

That’s more than $250,000 that has not been sent to Orion, the superintendent said.

Altogether, the state owes the district $1.1 million, he said.

Based on the last couple of years, Deets expects the 2010-11 budget to be $400,000 to $500,000 off.

“A lot of people expect 2010-11 to be the worst year,” he told the board.

The state might short Orion $600,000 to $700,000, the superintendent


“Without the changes made this year, we might have a $1 million deficit,” the superintendent said.

Overall, the four main funds, including working cash, ended the year with balances totaling $3.5 million, Deets said.

That sounds like a lot, but it includes $2.7 million in property taxes paid before the fiscal year ended, he said. The money was not for 2009-10 expenses, it was for 2010-11.

Backing out the $2.7 million leaves the four main funds with $800,000, he said.

“If the state shorts us $400,000 next year, we won’t have a reserve, except for early taxes,” Deets said.

For years, Orion school superintendents have worried that the early taxes might not be early.

The school district is a business, Deets said. He does not want to go to BankORION and borrow money to meet the payroll until the taxes come in.

Deets credited previous superintendents and boards for their efforts to control expenses.

“Orion is in a lot better shape than other districts,” he said. “We are in pretty good shape to weather the storm. It could be three years before we have the reserves we did in 2008.”

“We survived about as well as we could this year,” board president Doug Nelson said.

Parents and teachers attending the meeting commented on the effect cutting a physical education teacher might have.

They expressed concern about having 35 to 40 students in PE classes at C.R. Hanna Elementary School and Orion Middle School.

“Safety is of utmost importance,” Deets said. “But if we don’t efficiently allocate our resources, we will be faced with drastic changes in the next two or three years that will make this year look like a picnic,” Deets continued.

“We have heard from the community about savings here and there,” board member Larry Atkinson said. “But no one has a plan for saving $750,000.”

Later in the meeting, board members adopted policy changes the state recommended.

“They have more time to look at all the different policies than to straighten out the budget,” Atkinson said.

The suggested policy changes come from lawyers at the Illinois State Board of Education, Deets said. Their suggestions reflect changes in state law.

Of all the big numbers thrown around at the board meeting, it was a $4,000 expense that drew the most comment from audience members.

The board authorized Deets to spend that amount to hire a lawn maintenance firm to control weeds on district property.

Creeping charlie is taking over, he said, and threatening to spread

onto private land, the superintendent said.

“Our weeds are going into neighbors’ property,” board member Kim Nightingale said. “A lot of people in town are very meticulous about  their lawns.”

Once the lawn service brings the weeds under control, district staff can take care of it, Deets said.

But for now, the district lacks the equipment and the people with licenses to handle the necessary chemicals, he said.