With a vision of providing the community with the finest educational services for an estimated 1,600 students in the 2015/16 school year, the Highland Park School Board on Monday, April 20, 2015, approved a $28,887,653 budget, of which $24,207,999 million will be financed through the general fund school portion of property taxes. To raise this money, the general fund tax levy increase on an average home of $150,000 will amount to $224.23, reflecting a 3.50 percent increase over the previous year’s general fund school tax levy. Thus the total school portion of the property tax will amount to $6,635.73 on a home assessed at $150,000.
The April 20th public hearing on the school budget represented the fifth public presentation of the school budget (Feb. 23, March 9, March 23, April 13 and then April 20). Acting Superintendent Israel Soto at each public session emphasized the very diligent efforts by all administrators and school board members to keep expenditures as conservative as possible without compromising the quality of the education.
Dozens of comments at the public hearing and at the April 13th question- and-answer session implored the administration to make more cuts and keep the tax increase to a minimum. Mr. Soto defended the integrity of the final budget. “It was a fair, very thorough, transparent, inclusive process. Thousands of dollars in cuts were made but not at the expense of the children,” he said.
The final vote on the budget by the school board members did eliminate a small, but what had become a controversial budget item – the $20,000 for “community outreach.” School Board President Adam Sherman said this expenditure was to fund a community-wide communications initiative to bring people together in a way that would be analogous to a large focus group to analyze the issues and determine priorities. He said that the district would be looking for other ways to fund such an event, perhaps through a corporate grant.
Even though the expenditure budget included several belt-tightening cuts, the flat funding from the state (in light of increased costs for the same services) forced the increased expenditures above the state- mandated two percent cap. Highland Park School District was allowed to exceed the cap, because the district qualified for a waiver.
A state law enacted three years ago allowed school districts to hold school board election in November at the same time as the general election – and no vote at all on the school budget itself, as long as the tax increase remained within the two percent cap – with the special waiver provision. Since the budget vote has become optional, all but 16 of the more than 600 school districts have eliminated the special school election.
The school board’s next challenge is the search for the new superintendent to replace Israel Soto who leaves the job at the end of this school year. At the May 4, 2015 meeting, the board will reveal the details of the search process for the new superintendent and the process of appointing an interim superintendent.