Urbana looking at making $1 million in cuts

School district considers closing building, trimming bus service.

Urbana City Schools board members are considering $1 million in budget cuts this year after a recent levy failure, cuts that could include closing a building and reducing bus service.

The options also include pay-to-play fees for sports and extracurricular activities and reducing staff positions.

The cuts are necessary, Urbana Superintendent Charles Thiel said, after voters in November rejected a proposed 5.5-mill levy that would have raised as much as $1.3 million annually for the district and cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $168 a year.

Several factors, including the upcoming state budget, could have a significant effect on the district’s finances. Without new revenue, it’s possible the state could take control of the district’s finances, Thiel said.

While the district still hopes to make the cuts that will have the least impact on students, Thiel said few areas left meet that description. The district has already cut about $700,000 from the budget since last February, mostly by not filling positions left by retirements or resignations. District staff and administrators have also faced pay freezes and changes to health care in the last year hold down costs.

“At $1 million, we’re going to have to pull from a lot of places to meet that need,” Thiel said.

Cuts being discussed by the board include closing either South Elementary or Local Intermediate, reducing busing, reducing staff, eleminating some elective courses, and instituting pay-to-play fees for sports.

It would take some combination of cuts to reach $1 million in savings. For example, closing a school could save the district money, but it’s not clear there is enough room in other buildings to accomodate the additional students, Thiel said.

Overall, the district’s total revenue is projected to be about $20.5 million in 2013, according to the information from the district’s five-year forecast. The cuts would represent about five percent of the district’s budget, said Mandy Hildebrand, treasurer for the district.

The district’s revenue in 2013 is down from $22 million in 2012. The budget is projected to decrease each year, to $17 million by 2017.

For many taxpayers, it’s a choice between supporting the district and agreeing to pay higher taxes in a tough economy.

“Today, our community is facing a shrinking tax base, the youth are leaving to find jobs elsewhere, our investment is showing very little return for our community,” said James Sturgeon, a resident who posted a comment on a Facebook Page the district created to answer questions about the levy in the fall. “Those of us on fixed incomes are finding the additional taxes to be a burden.”

Other residents said the cuts could have a significant effect on the opportunities available for local students.

Lisa Silverman Ebert has two children in the district, both of whom are active in active in extracurricular activities that include golf, band and advanced classes.

“As a family our main concern is we will lose the gifted classes and many sports programs,” Ebert said of the cuts. “I am a true believer that my children are so gifted in their academics because they are being given the opportunity to nurture their creative side with music, art and sports. Many kids can only play sports if they have decent grades, and my fear is cutting the sports programs could affect the graduation rate.”

The district’s school board could have a better idea of what cuts will be made as early as next month.

Thiel said a previous budget projection showed the district about $1.7 million in the red by fiscal year 2014. The district had already cut about $700,000 of that figure before asking voters to approve the levy last fall. But now that it has failed, the district needs to find a way to eliminate the remaining $1 million.

Thiel said the district’s school board is leery of asking voters to approve any new levies this spring. The board will already likely seek a 9.75-mill renewal levy this spring that was first passed in 2008. That levy provides about $2.3 million for the district. One possible scenario, Thiel said, is the board could seek the renewal levy this spring, make the necessary cuts, and then ask voters to approve a new operating levy in the fall.

If voters reject the renewal levy in the next year, the district could face as much as $3 million in cuts.

“If we can’t get that passed in November, we would definitely be in a state-run situation,” Thiel said.

If voters approve the renewal levy but reject a new operating levy in the fall, the district would need to cut an additional $1.75 million to $2 million on top of the current cuts being discussed to stay fiscally solvent for the 2014-2015 school year, Thiel said. At that point, it’s too early to say whether the state would be forced to take over the district’s finances, he said.

The district also sought input from residents on where cuts should be made. Residents suggested everything from eliminating sports and extracurriculars to cutting the grass less often. The district is considering several of the suggestions, Thiel said, while others would not provide a savings for the district or are unrealistic. The suggestions, and the district’s responses, are available on the district’s web site.