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D-427 keeps eye on finances

SYCAMORE – After seven years under the leadership of Superintendent Wayne Riesen, Sycamore School District 427 tapped a former elementary school principal to lead the district in 2012 and beyond.

All Kathy Countryman had to do in her first year was help craft a budget with only $800,000 in new revenue, replace a pair of top administrators and deal with an unexpected computer system failure that prevented students and teachers from completing basic work and major projects.

But the early challenges in Countryman’s tenure have not dampened her optimism and have prepared her for 2013, which could see more drop-offs in state funding, less local property tax revenue, tough decisions on potential cuts to programs and staff and the start of a multimillion dollar HVAC project.

“Challenges are opportunities, and 2013 is going to be a year of opportunities,” Countryman said. “We have great kids and a fabulous staff, so we just want to move forward and provide an environment where student achievement can continue to increase.”

Part of Countryman’s staff includes Jan Benson, a 30-plus year employee of District 427, who took over as director of special education, and Kristine Webster, who was selected as director of curriculum. Both previous directors retired at the end of the 2011 school year.

Donald Clayberg, an eight-year veteran of the Sycamore school board, said the new administrators were a highlight of 2012 and credited Webster for playing an important role in implementing the Common Core curriculum and Rising Star program.

Clayberg said those two academic improvements were on display in 2012 – evidenced by four of the district’s seven schools meeting Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks – and will be a key to future success in 2013 and beyond.

“I see energy being developed not only in the students but in our faculty as well,” he said of the new programs. “We’ve been able to stay ahead of the game in many of these kinds of situations.”

May 8 was the highlight for board member Jeff Jacobson, as he was able to hear firsthand accounts from the 11 seniors in the inaugural Sycamore Business Leadership Academy class – a program Jacobson helped bring to the district after learning about it at a convention.

“It was neat to see that program get off the ground,” Jacobson said. “Our students realize the things they are learning now will benefit them in a short amount of time.”

To keep after-school programs strong, Jacobson said financial focus and prudence would need to be the top priority in 2013. Although the district has a fund balance hovering around $28 million, independent financial planners showed board members that amount could shrink to $4 million by 2017 if the state continues to cut funding and local revenues do not increase.

“We have a luxury here in that we have a fund balance that previous boards put away,” Jacobson said. “But we have to really watch our finances and continue to evaluate our programs and really prioritize those we truly need.”

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