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Fairview Heights school district to cut costs as part of state-ordered financial plan

The exterior of Grant Middle School in Fairview Heights, Ill., is shown on March 11, 2024.
Joshua Carter
/
Belleville News-Democrat
The exterior of Grant Middle School in Fairview Heights, Ill., is shown on March 11, 2024.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

The Illinois State Board of Education voted Wednesday to approve the financial plan it required Grant District 110 to submit to show how it will reduce deficits and improve financial reporting, internal controls and grant management.

The board certified the small Fairview Heights school district as being in “financial difficulty” in March.

The district’s plan outlines how it will delegate tasks related to the district’s finances among administrative staff and reduce costs by at least $215,000 over the next three fiscal years through employee attrition.

It will need to be amended in the future, however, because of current contract negotiations with the teachers union and other anticipated changes in revenue and expenditures, according to a state board of education memo. That memo also states some of the financial projections in the plan, especially for fiscal years 2026 and 2027, may be inaccurate or incorrect.

If Grant 110 does not follow the plan, the state board can appoint a financial oversight panel.

There was no discussion among the state board because the financial plan was approved as part of the larger consent agenda, and those items were discussed in committees and at previous meetings.

“The state board has been really great to work with,” Superintendent Matt Stines said Thursday. “They’ve all been fantastic.”

On March 13, the state board certified the Fairview Heights school district as being in financial difficulty because it had failed to submit financial information — such as its fiscal year 2023 and 2024 budgets — to the state in a timely manner.

Other factors the state cited were the district’s long-term deficit spending, reliance on working cash bonds and failure to apply for several federal grant programs.

“I think the state board is on target with wanting to see our district not deficit spend,” Stines said. “That’s a goal for all of us.”

Deficit spending and borrowing through working cash bonds has been the district’s reality since the late 1980s, predating his tenure as superintendent, he said.

“I do appreciate that we’ve got a plan that, over a three-year period, works to minimize, reduce, almost eliminate our borrowing,” he said.

The March and April meetings of the Board of Education of District 110 were moved to the gym of Grant Middle School to accommodate the crowd of teachers and parents who attended. Many spoke during the public comment period of the meetings to call for more accountability and transparency from district administration.

A few days after the district’s financial difficulty certification, the Grant-Illini Federation of Teachers issued a statement calling on the board to remove Stines, a request union members have echoed at recent board meetings. The seven-member board — three members of which have been appointed in the past year — has not publicly addressed the request at meetings.

Grant 110’s Board of Education members initially approved the district’s financial plan for the state at its April board meeting and re-approved it with recommended revisions from the state board of education at a special board meeting on May 10.

Here’s what’s in it:

Budget reductions

In fiscal year 2025, which runs from July 1, 2024, through June 30, 2025, Grant 110 will reduce costs by at least $98,604 and up to $147,756 due to staff attrition.

“We have multiple resignations. One will not be filled, reducing $62,045 in salary. Several will likely be filled with a less senior, less expensive teachers. We have also decided to reduce a 2.0 paraprofessional positions,” the plan reads.

Stines said the district has eight or nine resignations at this point, and the position that won’t be filled is a reading intervention position at Illini Elementary. The district added the position with federal COVID-19 relief funds to provide additional support during and post-pandemic.

Whether the cost reduction will be closer to $98,000 or $147,000 for fiscal year 2025 depends on the experience of the staff the district hires for the vacant positions, he said. Another variable is student needs, which could mean the district has to hire back one of the paraprofessionals.

In fiscal year 2026, there will be three retirements leading to a reduction of $90,596 in salary costs. Pending administrative retirements in 2027 will lead to a $26,602 reduction.

It’s easier to project for fiscal year 2025 than the two following years, the plan says. “One of the hardest variables we feel the district faces with expenses are those related to student services,” it reads.

The district is seeing “significant growth” in expenses for special education students and English language learners, but not in revenue.

“If the district is still falling behind as we get into FY27, there are some difficult choices we will have to make,” the plan continues. “If it is determined to be necessary, below are examples of significant cuts we could make.”

The cuts, which total $1,261,000, focus only on the bottom-line, not what’s best for students, it says.

  • Reduce a section at each grade level (9 full-time equivalent employees) - $450,000
  • Eliminate art program at both buildings (2 full-time equivalent) - $100,000
  • Reduce custodial staff with less rooms used (2 full-time equivalent) - $120,000
  • Reduce an emotional disorder classroom at Illini - $75,000
  • Reduce/eliminate pre-K - $75,000
  • Reduce social worker (1 full-time equivalent) - $60,000
  • Reduce physical education teachers (2 full-time equivalent) - $110,000
  • Reduce social-emotional learning teacher at Illini (1 full-time equivalent) - $45,000
  • Benefits saved from reductions (TRS, IMRF, health) - $226,000

“We certainly could make budget reductions and get to a balanced budget with no borrowing in a few years. The million dollar question, is at what cost?” the plan says.
Class sizes would increase, meaning students would be learning in tight quarters and get less individualized attention.

“The leadership of our district do not feel any of this would be beneficial,” the plan reads.

Stines explained that the cuts outlined in this section of the plan are a “worst-case scenario” that he and the board don’t plan to get to.

“I think on some level, the state board wants to know, if the worst of the worst happens, could we get you to a point where you don’t have to deficit spend, and that’s why it’s in there,” he said. “I don’t see a reality where we’re gonna get to that point.”

On the Illinois Report Card for school year 2022-23, Illini Elementary received an “exemplary” designation, indicating it is in the top 10% of schools statewide in terms of overall performance. Grant Middle School was deemed “commendable,” the second-highest designation.

“We provide good education for kids, and that’s the most important thing, and we don’t want to see that go by the wayside,” Stines said.

Grant 110 has faced “tough financial situations in the past,” the plan says, including severe program cuts in 2013 after two failed referendum attempts.

In the 2014 general election, voters passed a referendum to increase the district’s tax rate for its educational fund from 1.42% to 2.27%. Two prior attempts in 2011 and 2013 to raise the educational fund tax rate had failed.

“The district made a commitment to the community when the referendum passed in 2014 that programs would return, and we have tried to honor that,” the plan reads. “We know these are good things for kids.”

Financial reporting, internal controls and grant management

In a March interview with the BND and at the March board meeting, Stines said the district office consists of him and a bookkeeper, and turnover in the bookkeeper position led to incorrect bank reconciliations and a “snowball effect” of late submission of financial documents to the state.

To ensure the timely submission of required financial and grant-related documents to the state, the district will use additional staff and cross-train employees to prevent lapses. A lesson learned is that many tasks handled by the district office need to be delegated, the plan says.

The secretary at Grant Middle School will assist with completing reporting requirements and maintain a calendar of deadlines, and the new bookkeeper is being trained on the relevant systems and reporting requirements.

The Board of Education has been provided a copy of the calendar to allow all seven members to check approaching dates and expected actions.

The district is also redistributing duties across its administrative team, which will see turnover in the near future.

“Of the five administrators, four will be retired between now and the next three school years,” the plan says. “This will afford the district the ability to replace admin with a cost savings and leave an expenditure neutral situation for adding additional support.”

The district is bringing on an assistant principal at Illini Elementary in fiscal year 2025. That person will replace the current principal who is retiring at the end of fiscal year 2026.

“We’ve had an assistant principal at the middle school for a number of years, we added the assistant principal at the elementary school,” Stines said. “Some of our climate surveys and staff surveys indicated that a little more support was needed.”

Because of that, he and the board felt it was a good move to added an assistant principal at Illini, he said.

One of the assistant principals will become the special education director for the district, removing those tasks from the principals and superintendent, and another will take over professional development planning and records for the superintendent.

The principal and assistant principal at Illini will take over management of the district’s pre-K grant, and in fiscal year 2026, the assistant principal at Grant Middle School will take over some responsibilities for the district’s Title grant.

To address internal controls, including the segregation of duties and ensuring monthly bank reconciliations, the secretary will take over HR requirements for the bookkeeper. The bookkeeper is responsible for reconciling bank statements and will continue to do so.

Since the prior bookkeeper hadn’t been doing that, the district has contracted with an outside auditor to reconcile bank statements going back to the beginning of fiscal year 2023.

The district has contracted the firm from February 2024 through February 2025 but intends to maintain them through the end of fiscal year 2025.

The superintendent has been talking with a retired accountant and superintendent to contract with the district going into fiscal year 2026 to double check the accounts on a regular basis.

Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat (or other outlet), a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.