CEL school board and superintendent review finances, potential building projects and issues with new lunch guidelines

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[November 21, 2012]  The Chester-East Lincoln Board of Education met Nov. 13 for the scheduled monthly meeting. The evening consisted of a series of small presentations concerning the school's finances, potential building projects and issues with new USDA lunch guidelines.

Before the presentations, Superintendent Jennifer Hamm gave an update on the norovirus in the school. Hamm said that after a couple of days, the number of cases still being reported by students was under 10. Hamm also said that the school had received a lot of positive feedback as to the swift decision to close the school for a day to halt the spreading of the virus to more students.

While on the topic of emergencies, Hamm also said that CEL has set up a new emergency email address for parents attempting to reach the school in an emergency. The new address is cel911@cel61.com.

Tentative levy presentation

The first presentation was given by Hamm, and it was on the subject of the proposed tax levy for 2012. She began with a quick summary of how the tax levy process works:

  • In November, the proposed levy is presented to the board of education.

  • In December, the levy is passed by the board after any discussion and given to the county clerk's office.

  • The following April, the county clerk releases the equalized assessed valuation, or EVA, and the extension for the next fiscal year.

  • In July, the first installment of taxes is received by the school.

Hamm also reminded those present that the school year is funded by previous year's tax dollars. For example, the current school year is funded with 2011 tax dollars.

There is a challenge that lies with presenting a potential tax levy. The EAV for tax year 2012 has not been determined; the data should be available next April. Since the law requires that the county clerk's office collect tax levy data by the last Tuesday of December, the school has to estimate any potential increase in residential and commercial property values within the district.

If the board's estimate is too low, they could lose tax dollars. Estimating too high could cause the public to believe that their taxes are being raised. Even if the school provides information as to how property taxation works, the process involved is highly complex and difficult to understand. It is ideal that the tax levy remains at 4.99 percent or less.

Hamm's presentation also showed that the district has hit its maximum levy capacity in all areas except for IMRF, tort immunity and Social Security. The school is not looking to raise the rates for those areas, so the overall rate can remain at 2.7, which would give them just under $1.75 million in tax dollars. As the EAV will likely be less than last year, the actual tax extension (the aforementioned $1.75 million), will likely be lower as well.

There will be a public levy hearing Dec. 18 at 5:45 p.m. to answer any questions the public may have and to vote on the levy.

Education fund analysis

At the question-and-answer session prior to the board meeting, Hamm gave a brief explanation of the fluctuations in the education fund over the last 10 years.

The education fund is used primarily to pay teacher salaries and benefits for teachers.

While some people may believe that the school is spending too much out of the education fund, the real problem is not the spending, but much lower revenue to draw on. The school could not have predicted the educational fallout that began in 2008.

"Say what you will about Blagojevich, but he spent a lot of money on education," said Hamm.

Between 2008 and 2009, the state withheld nearly $107,000 from CEL. Furthermore, years like 2009 and 2010 have proven to be deceptive. While the figures may reflect that the school saw an increase in revenue in those years, the increase is due to late payments from 2008. Between the change in state spending and the late payments, CEL, like other schools, has had a difficult time adjusting to such financial instability.

Hamm also said that for those interested in tracking the education fund expenditures, it would be better to look at audits rather than the budget that is presented. A budget is simply an estimation of what the school expects to spend, not the actual figures. Those who are curious can see the past 10 years' worth of audits at www.isbe.net/sfms/html/financial_archive.htm.

The bonding process

Tom Crabtree, an employee of Stifel Nicolaus, gave a brief presentation as to the issuing of financial bonds in order to pay for any upcoming building projects the board decides to approve.

Crabtree's presentation mainly focused on how much money the school can spend without raising property taxes. While avoiding an increase in property taxes, the board could sell bonds in an amount of up to $2.7 million. However, with the introduction of a 9-cent tax increase, the board could raise that limit to $3.6 million.

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Crabtree also explained that the board could spend only 80 percent of the sales tax fund, as per state guidelines. This is in place so the school still retains a financial cushion, should an issue concerning bond repayment surface.

The board will make a decision by March about selling bonds.

Renovation cost analysis and tentative schedule

Hamm provided a presentation concerning the tentative costs and schedule of the improvements that could be made to the school. A five-step process was outlined for the course of the next five years. Phase one, which involved identifying the problems that need to be addressed and getting the public involved in the decision-making, has already been completed.

Phase two, the project development phase, involves finalizing designs, applying for grants and considering the feasibility of the projects in terms of health and safety. This phase is expected to end in January.

Phase two also includes the first wave of improvements that will be made to the building. These improvements include new floor tile and carpeting, new windows in the oldest wing, bathroom renovations, updated electrical and HVAC systems, and renovations to art and media rooms, as well as the front entrance. In total, the second phase could cost at least $2.8 million, which does not reflect potential grant money or any additional remodeling the board wishes to begin at that time.

Phases three through five would occur between 2014 and 2016 and would include a number of other renovations that would total another $600,000 to $800,000.

Food service survey and recommendations

At the board meeting in October, the board discussed various options to address an issue the school is having with lunches. New USDA regulations have forced the school to change the lunch menus. Unfortunately, the children are not necessarily enjoying what is being served. In trying to find a solution, the school sent a survey to parents to hear some opinions.

Of the parents surveyed, 72.9 percent want to see the school change the menu to resemble what is used by other school districts, like District 27, which uses a "hot lunch" menu. However, such a change would result in the school having to spend an extra $2,500 to $4,400 every year. If that were the case, 61.7 percent of the parents surveyed said they wanted to see the school use disposable trays and utensils, which would still require the extra $2,500.

Parents were also asked their thoughts on abandoning the new guidelines in favor of meals more preferable to the students. Unfortunately, such a change would result in the school having to charge $4 per day for lunch, due to the withdrawal of the funding that accompanies these guidelines. Of the parents surveyed, 76.6 percent said the school should stay with the guidelines, despite the strict nature of the new regulations.

Finally, the survey asked if parents would like to see an a la carte line for students to purchase extra food. Of the parents surveyed, 64.6 percent said yes. However, the school would have to hire an additional staff member to manage the line, lunch periods would have to be extended, and an extra $600 would have to be spent in order to buy an additional laptop and card scanner to track purchases.

With the likely change to tray lunches, the school has a little more room to provide a menu that students will want to eat, but the board will continue to work on the issue.

The presentations given (with the exception of the bond presentation) are available for viewing on the CEL website at http://www.cel61.com/

Board members present were Keith Birnbaum, president; Kenny Golden, vice president; Tina Warfel; Larry Hall; Ben Roland; Leslie Starasta; and Superintendent Jennifer Hamm.


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