In the wake of information that the Riverside-Brookfield High School Board of Education might ax the 2-year-old Paw Cafe from its 2005-06 budget, supporters of the restaurant/alternative classroom have organized a petition drive to try to convince board members to spare The Paw.

According to Sri Rao, general manager of The Paw and its adjoining Cyberdog Cafe coffee shop, over 150 people?”neighbors, students and employees?”have signed petitions asking the board to reconsider closing The Paw, which is located across the street from the Metra’s zoo stop at 8420 Brookfield Ave. in Brookfield. Rao said he expects many of those supporters to voice their feelings at the District 208 board meeting Aug. 23.

“I think it definitely could have some sort of effect,” said Rao. “Regardless of the school board’s point of view, people are coming to The Paw, and the number of customers has gone up tremendously in the last few weeks [since the program cut was revealed].”

District 208 Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann a year ago called the 2004-05 school year a “watershed” for the restaurant. But while revenues may have increased, The Paw was expected to lose $50,000.

Baldermann reiterated his support for the program as a concept and praised its effectiveness as a curriculum, but said that financial realities were forcing the decision to jettison the program.

“I came up with the idea for The Paw,” Baldermann said, “but it realistically loses between three and four thousand dollars a month. We can’t afford it in this budget.”

Baldermann said that in earlier budget workshops, board members were forced to cut some $450,000 to reach a balanced budget for the 2005-06 school year. The board is expected to approve a $17.3 million operating budget, which represents a 2-percent increase in spending over last year, at its Sept. 13 meeting.

Despite the bleak outlook for The Paw, hope hasn’t dimmed entirely. Baldermann confirmed last week that even if the board decides to pull funding for The Paw, the restaurant will remain open at least through October as school officials await word on impending grant applications.

But, in the meantime, the school’s entrepreneurship course has been eliminated for the fall, although students, including several students from the school’s special education program, will continue to work there.

Peter Macabobby, who taught the entrepreneurship course at RB over the last two years, left the school in June for a job in the Wheaton high school system.

Baldermann also said that he would be meeting this week with representatives from the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE) to see if any other schools might be interested in partnering with RB to help fund The Paw.

“One of two things is going to happen,” Baldermann said. “Either we get a significant grant or The Paw becomes financially self-sustaining. If neither happens, it looks like we’ll have to cease operations.”

Rao has also decided to leave The Paw at the end of August. Although he said that he’ll remain available to work on a consulting basis with The Paw, he’s accepted a management opportunity with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants.

Management of The Paw/Cyberdog will transfer to Christine Hekr, who manages The Paw’s catering operation and the restaurant’s satellite facility at Riverside Swim Club, and Deb Denneny, an assistant manager at The Paw.