"Flush" is not a typical word local schools use to describe their finances.
In recent years, district officials have characterized their financial situations as dire, with their state money dwindling.
It's been particularly rough for districts with low property values such as Streator Elementary, which is on the state's financial watch list.
On the other hand, Streator High stands out from many of the area's bigger districts. It has a surplus — and a sizable one at that.
A few years ago, its deficit was in the hundreds of thousands. Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, it recorded a surplus of $5,000. This year, it projects the surplus to increase to more than $800,000 and stay in the hundreds of thousands for years.
At a recent Streator High School board meeting, member Steve Biroschik said the district's teachers union may see the school's finances as "flush" and that will "send a signal."
Superintendent Matt Seaton responded the district should negotiate a fair contract with teachers, with negotiations starting in early 2020. But he said no one should see the surpluses as money to give away.
About half of this year's surplus is the result of a new state funding formula that increased the amount of money for all school districts, with even greater hikes for schools in poorer areas.
Three other reasons Streator High may be in better shape:
- The district has been cutting costs. Three years ago, Streator High laid off nine employees, while other positions were eliminated through attrition.
- The Streator High district is geographically larger than the struggling Streator Elementary, taking in surrounding areas that include a solar farm and wind turbines, both of which are windfalls in property taxes.
- In the early 1990s, the Streator High district's voters passed a thrice-failed referendum to increase property taxes.
"In all honesty, part of our ability to balance the budget is because we have a higher property tax rate than other districts because of the referendum 25 years ago," Seaton said in an interview. "When the voters passed the referendum, we had a greater opportunity to have surpluses."
In recent years, he said, the district has avoided raising taxes, except one year when they went up a bit.
"If we consistently run these kinds of surpluses, we will look to provide property tax relief on an annual basis," said Seaton, who started in 2014.
At the same time, he said the district will need to spend money on a list of deferred maintenance items, including roofs.
Like many other districts, Ottawa Elementary, which has the most students of any district in La Salle County, is still projecting deficits, despite expectations of more state money.
The district's shortfall for this fiscal year is $723,985, down from last year's $1.4 million.
Some of that decrease, Superintendent Cleve Threadgill said in an interview, is the result of the new school funding law, although the state has not spelled out how much more each district will get.
The rest of the drop in the deficit is because Ottawa Elementary is getting late state payments from last year for such things as transportation, special education and preschool. Because of this, Threadgill said, the district may well see an increase in the shortfall in the next fiscal year.
Over the last few years, Ottawa Elementary has felt financial pain, as the district has cut 30 positions through layoffs and attrition, he said.
Schools, he said, are being told the state's new funding formula will be fully effective over the next decade.
"I hope we are beyond our biggest cuts now," Threadgill said. "We have weathered the storm. We will be able to keep our core curriculum and keep all of our extracurriculars."
Loss of opportunities?
At Ottawa High School, deficits will remain high — about $1.9 million a year.
Asked by email about this, Superintendent Mike Cushing said the district hoped it would not have to reduce or lay off any more faculty.
"Since 2010, the district has made at least 25 personnel (licensed and nonlicensed) related reductions," he said in an email. "If the district is forced to make further personnel related reductions, it will result in the loss of extracurricular opportunities and possibly instructional opportunities for our students."
Streator Elementary, which has the lowest property value per student of any district in the county, continues to struggle with its finances. It is on a three-year deficit reduction plan with the state. It has laid off employees and closed two schools in recent years.
In an email, Superintendent Matt Wilkinson noted the state has yet to reveal amounts in general aid it will give schools.
Streator Elementary is in the poorest town in the area, as demonstrated by its median household income and poverty rate. In addition to that, the district faces yet another challenge — enrollment.
"The new funding model is based on student enrollment and not average daily attendance," Wilkinson said. "Streator Elementary's student enrollment has decreased significantly over the last few school years."
BY THE NUMBERS
Streator High School's deficits and surpluses (including those projected in later years):