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Staff cuts planned to balance Sycamore School District 427 budget

Increased caseloads, fewer course offerings expected with Sycamore layoffs

Sycamore School District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman conducts a staff meeting in 2012.
Sycamore School District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman conducts a staff meeting in 2012.

SYCAMORE – With Sycamore School District 427 considering a third consecutive year of staff cuts, parents such as Natalie Nelson are concerned about how services for their children might be affected, as caseloads are expected to increase for counselors, special education teachers and others.

Nelson said her son, a fourth-grader who has autism and ADHD, receives help from a special education teacher, teacher’s aide and social worker; all are positions identified for reductions.

“I was really disappointed that most of the cuts are in places where we can’t afford them,” she said.

The board members heard a proposed staff reduction plan Tuesday in which about 40 positions are up for elimination. Members stressed the importance of reaching a balanced budget to reduce deficit spending, which would require a $2.3 million cut next year.

The goal is to reach a balanced budget by the end of the 2017-18 school year, which is slated to be the final peg of the district’s three-year budget reduction plan.

Superintendent Kathy Countryman said of about 19 teaching positions identified, eight teachers would lose their jobs, and the rest would be achieved through attrition. She also said 20 full- and part-time support staff would be affected of 21 positions identified.

Countryman said the district anticipates being able to bring several staff members back using grants, but it must take precautions to not be overstaffed if the grants are not fully funded.

“These are people that we’ve hired; we know them, and we know the great work they do,” she said. “To have to make these kinds of decisions is really brutal, frankly.”

Last year, the district dismissed 18 employees, including 12 full-time teachers. That was after laying off four full-time employees and three part-time employees and reducing four positions in 2015. The past two years’ cuts have led to increased class sizes in the high school and targeting student services to those with specific needs for them, Countryman said.

The plan for next year would reduce five core curriculum teachers, four reading teachers, three special education teachers, 3.2 library, physical education, technology or art teachers, and 1.6 elective course teachers. It also would eliminate part-time social worker and school counselor positions and a school nurse.

From the support staff, 10 teacher’s aide positions would be eliminated, along with two math interventionists, six reading interventionists, an office secretary, a security guard and a technology assistant.

Lynn Reilley, the district’s special education director, said two of the cuts to special education are specialized positions for vision- and hearing-impaired students, but those services can be provided by contracting with an outside agency.

“We looked at being able to still meet all the needs of our special education students with three less staff,” Reilley said.

Countryman said the district would be looking to place reading staff, social workers, nurses and others where they are most needed, as it does with special education staff.

“We would say your assignment is going to be partially here, but maybe in this building we have more students that need support, so we would have two people there,” she said.

The district also would be looking to adjust schedules for library, art and gym classes so they still are available with the staffing decrease, as well as offering fewer of the less popular elective courses at the high school, Countryman said.

The board will consider the staff reductions at its Feb. 28 meeting. If approved, teachers would be notified March 14, and the educational support staff notified April 11. Staff members who fall into a category for elimination are selected based on seniority, with the most recent hires the first to go, Countryman said.

Jim Dombek, chairman of the board, said as a town gets more prosperous with new construction, industry and property values, the state continues reducing funds to the school district.

“We never get a chance to fully realize the growth and the prosperity of the community, because what the state giveth, the state taketh away. It’s always a catch-22,” he said. “It really is a difficult situation, especially after we’ve made all the cuts we can to infrastructure, now to have to look at programs and people.”

Board member Eric Jones said the board has been taking measures to reduce spending for years in the hopes that the economy would improve, but with more than 80 percent of the district budget going to pay staff, some reductions are unavoidable.

“There’s nothing there left to cut,” Jones said. “You can’t just shut off a light in every classroom and somehow save a couple of teaching positions that way.”

Board member Kris Wrenn said now that the deficit spending previous boards have saved is no longer available, the district cannot afford to pay its bills without considering serious ways to reduce the budget.

“I’ve been on the board for seven years, and the entire time we’ve been in a three-year deficit reduction plan,” she said.

This school year, the district cut $2.8 million in spending after a $1.1 million reduction in the 2015-16 school year.

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