In 2008, the U-46 School District in Illinois faced a budget deficit of $45 million. Instead of deciding to do less with limited funds, the district worked with the school board and the community to make strategic budget cuts—with students as their priority. By openly communicating and decentralizing budget decisions, being creative and flexible in the use of their funds, and demonstrating equity in fund distribution, the district re-established trust with the community and was able to make transformational funding changes to benefit their students.
“When I came to the district in 2008 as an instructional superintendent, my timing was terrible,” explains José M. Torres, Superintendent of Schools for District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois. The economy crashed in October 2008 and the district was left facing a $45 million budget shortfall. Although Torres was hired to focus on instruction, his first order of business had to be getting the school budget on track.
Torres and his team worked diligently to rebuild trust and create a culture of openness around the budget with the school board and the community. “It took me two years to get the budget approved by the Board,” says Torres. “Instead of trying to hit home runs, I just tried to get on base, and it worked.”
The first year, Torres created an advisory group and told them they needed to cut $25 million from the budget. Torres knew they really needed to cut $50 million, but he wasn’t sure they could get there in a year, so he set a more modest goal. Torres distributed a survey that wasn’t binding but asked everyone to vote on what he or she would cut to get to $25 million, and then $50 million. Through this process, they reached consensus on some modest cuts. For example, U-46 decided to empty their swimming pools for half of the year, which saved $300,000 (the value of about 5 teachers). “We weren’t cutting swimming—we were just limiting pool time.” They reduced certified nurses and hired registered nurses at a much lower cost. And they cut $325,000 in professional development and energy costs.
But those cuts weren’t going to get them to $25 million. As a result, in March of 2009, U-46 was forced to reduce their workforce by 20% and lay off 1,000 teachers. They held their Board meeting in the high school auditorium and all 800 seats were filled. “One of the things I learned was that while I’d spent months looking at budgets and trying to be strategic, the Board had only heard about the cuts right before they voted. They didn’t have time to assimilate. They didn’t understand the rationale behind our decisions.”
So the following year Torres sat down with each Board member and explained the rationale behind each reduction. “While we had to cut $20 million, $350 million of the budget still remained intact. Instead of just focusing on the negative, I told each Board member what we hadn’t cut: art, music, gifted programs, advanced placement, academies, etc. We couldn’t wait for the economy to get better to invest in our students, so we expanded our advanced placement opportunities despite the cuts,” adds Torres. “We also set out to reduce class sizes in 9th grade English because we know that’s a transition area. But at the end of the year, our freshman classes had 30 students and our honor classes had 18, so we made mid-course corrections.” In the past, Torres had always made budget decisions behind closed doors, but his experience taught him that people need time to understand the thinking behind big decisions.
U-46 didn’t just need to reduce their budget, they needed to reduce it in a way that increased effectiveness. “We wanted reductions that were sustainable, but we also had to be flexible. People were clamoring for us to bring things back, like library para-professionals in every classroom. But when I told the principals that it would cost $20,000, they chose to bring in reading intervention specialists (hourly wage employees) instead,” adds Torres. So the district gave schools flexibility to hire certified teachers to do individual interventions and address library needs in other ways. These types of changes improved instruction and stretched the budget.
Budget cuts also forced increases in class sizes in 2nd and 3rd grade to 25, and to 28 in 4th, 5th and 6th. “But students don’t come packaged in staffing formulas,” says Torres. “So we decided to try multi-grade classrooms.” This allowed schools to regroup students according to their learning needs, providing smaller group sizes to the students who needed it more. U-46 had an instructional coach that became a strong supporter of the multi-grade classroom teachers, and the students in those classrooms performed better than those in single-grade classrooms.
Allocate Resources Equitably Based on Student Needs
“In 2008, different schools in our district had different levels of support, but no one could explain why. Some schools had class sizes of 24 and some had 25,” explains Torres. “(Being designated) a Title One Tier-3 school seemed like a backroom, backdoor deal. That first year, when we had the big cuts, we were able to…treat everyone equally. Then we realized that we couldn’t afford to keep everyone at the same level, but we wanted to be equitable in our practice.” Rather than add back budget dollars and staff equally across the board, Torres turned this into an opportunity to channel resources to the areas of highest need. He and his team identified areas that needed different staffing standards. For example, they targeted smaller class sizes for freshman English and math than for high school junior English and math. The district agreed to provide what students needed when they needed it. “Now it’s no longer a mystery who gets what. It takes more time to explain, but everything is transparent,” adds Torres.
“Today we’re in a much better place, economically,” says Torres. The district just finished some very tough negotiations with their teacher’s union, which took 14 months. “Overall we’re financially healthier, and we have a strategy for moving forward. It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden money is growing on trees, but we’ve made good progress. We have a good district. We will be great soon. Ultimately, it’s not just about the money. We want to improve academic achievement and be a great place for students to learn, for teachers to teach, and for all employees to work.”
“ERS helped us read between the lines and became our strategic thought partner. They gave us enough space to think like a cabinet and reassured us that we were heading in the right direction. We brought in principal groups, and ERS helped us through our negotiations with them. There was no way we would have been successful without ERS.”