The Palestine Unit 3 School District expects to be $820,861 in debt by the end of the school year, and school officials want the community to know the board is looking at cutting more than $550,000 in faculty, staff, sports, field trips and administrative salaries.
During a special school board meeting Thursday night that was attended by around 170 people in the grade-school gym, Palestine Superintendent Joe Sornberger outlined the current state of the district's financial situation in a 10-point presentation and answered questions afterwards.
Sornberger reported that during the last five years the district has lost more than $1 million in revenue, and $306,277 in general state aid in just the last year. He further explained that the state is continuing to reduce the amount of reimbursements to schools, specifically when it comes to GSA, transportation, special education and pre-kindergarten programs.
Sornberger went on to say that the payments Unit 3 is getting from the state are coming late. He said the district just received a transportation payment that was due in September. In the meantime, the district's bills and obligations continue.
Over the next two months the board will look at how and where it can cut $566,834.
Proportionally, the cuts will include $226,892 from certified staff, $137,469 from non-certified staff, $68,805 from extracurricular activities (sports), and $12,521 from the activity fund, as well as wage freezes and benefit cuts to administrators. Sornberger said they do not have specific staff or positions identified yet.
Sornberger did say that if they make some changes and "if things go well," the debt may only be around $600,000. In anticipation of needing more working cash, the board approved opening a $485,000 line of credit at the beginning of the school year. So far that has not been needed. "We can't make it through any more," Sornberger said.
Before taking questions, Sornberger told the crowd that as he began working on the budget last July and discovered how bad the situation was, he felt like he was going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, then not wanting to accept what Unit 3 would have to do.
As citizens addressed questions and comments to Sornberger and members of the board, there was a sense that they were experiencing similar emotions in questions such as: Are you cutting sports? Secretaries? Can we raise taxes or pay additional fees? Whose fault is it? How can we help? Emotional pleas to keep sports, and the importance of sports in students' lives were also expressed. The controversial term "consolidation" was also brought up.
In answering questions, Sornberger explained how the proposed one percent countywide school sales tax would contribute around $167,000, but that money could only be used for building and maintenance projects. He also explained that by law, money in some account funds could not be used for general education expenses. He did say that any contributions to those funds would free up money that could be used elsewhere.
Sornberger reminded the crowd that Palestine has several academic and sports booster organizations that do a lot for the district, and working through those organizations may be a productive way to help the district.
Sornberger thanked everyone for their recommendations and comments. He said the board will be discussing everything over the next two months as they make these tough decisions. He also said that his door is always open, and that as community members have time to think and digest the information, they could contact him by email at email@example.com.