By Bob Skolnik
A veteran Riverside-Brookfield High School teacher is calling upon the District 208 school board to consider taking $1 million out of reserves and spend it to hire more teachers and counselors to reduce class sizes and improve education.
Dave Monti, a biology and zoology teacher who has taught at RBHS for 28 years, addressed the school board at the school board's Dec. 10 meeting.
It was the second time in three months Monti has addressed the school board, raising concerns about class sizes. In October, he focused on what he said were unsafe chemistry class sizes.
RBHS chemistry classrooms are set up with 12 lab stations to accommodate 24 students, if each student has one lab partner. This year, however, there is just one chemistry class at RBHS with 24 students.
The other classes are larger, including four honors chemistry classes with 28 students each. The other two honors chemistry classes have 27 students.
In October and again last week, Monti said that hiring one part-time teacher to teach one section of honors chemistry could have gotten class sizes down to no more than 24 students in a classroom.
But administrators say it is not so simple. While they admit that chemistry classes this year are larger than they would like, they say that it would have been very hard to adjust students' schedules to fill up another honors chemistry class.
"The timing issue of shifting those students' schedules wasn't appropriate," said District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis.
Skinkis said that while there was money in the budget to hire a part-time teacher for one class, he noted it is not easy to find someone interested in teaching just one class.
"It would have been a tough hire," said Skinkis.
Skinkis said that typically some students drop honors chemistry, but that didn't happen this year. He acknowledged that Monti raised a legitimate concern and that administrators plan to address the issue next year.
Last week, Monti broadened his approach, saying the district's cash reserves are far in excess of what the Illinois State Board of Education considers adequate. He said that some of that money should be spent to hire more teachers and other staff.
"Think of the impact reduced class sizes would have on climate and morale," Monti told the school board. "And again, this is not just an issue in the science department. After I spoke in October, I was approached by every department in this building for coming up and speaking, and they all said that they have classes that are at levels that most research in education shows has a negative impact on learning."
The district approved a budget in September that is projecting an operating deficit of about $400,000 this year. But the district is still expected to finish the school year with about $15.8 million in reserves, which is nearly 59 percent of annual expenses.
However, the school board is reserving $2.9 million in the working cash fund for what they hope will be a deal with the Brookfield Zoo to buy the athletic fields directly north of the school that are owned by Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Excluding that $2.9 million, this year's anticipated ending operating fund balance drops to about $12.9, which is 48 percent of operating expenditures. Generally, cash reserves of 33 percent are considered adequate, although many districts like to carry more ample reserves.
Monti asked the school board to think about what could be done if they spent $1 million of the reserves on more staff.
"A couple of [full time equivalents] could be added and spread over the departments that are overcrowded, especially science, social science and world language," said Monti, who lives in the school district. "A third dean and a second attendance secretary could be added along with a second school nurse. A much-needed counselor could be added to Student Services, one of the highest staff-to-student ratio positions in any area high school."
RBHS has five counselors for its 1,568 students, a student-to-counselor ratio of 331.6 to 1. Lyons Township High School has a student to counselor ratio of 267 to 1 and also has a full-time college placement coordinator, a position that RBHS does not have.
The American School Counselors Association (ASCA) recommends a student to counselor ratio of 250 to 1. But according to the ASCA, schools in the state of Illinois have an overall student to counselor ratio of 664 to 1.
Wes Smithing, the president of the District 208 school board, said that with deficits projected for the next few years, this is not the time to be spending down reserves.
"To spend more because there's money, I'm a little nervous of that." Smithing said. "I'd like to see where we are at 2023."
District leaders are pointing to 2023, because that is when the bonds issued to pay for the renovation and expansion of RBHS that took place in 2008 and 2009 will be paid off.
"The goal is try to get to 2023 when the debt comes off of the taxpayers for the bonds and then we'll see where the district's at," Skinkis told the Landmark. "Just to spend just because someone in the community believes the reserve is too high, I don't believe in that opinion. I think if there is a specific need that needs to be addressed, we should address it."
Smithing also said that hiring teachers is typically a long-term expense and not just a one-year expenditure.
"To add a million dollars, that's a million dollars every year compounding," Smithing said. "Where's the revenue for that?"
In his eight-minute-long statement last week, Monti also criticized the practice of giving administrators bonuses calling attention to the $23,000 bonus Skinkis received last year and the $52,500 in total bonuses given to top administrators last year.
"Dr. Skinkis gets a bonus for his fiscal responsibility, and I understand that and I appreciate that," Monti said. "But is it ethical to give one person money for withholding money collected from taxpayers to be spent on their children's education? My tax dollars should go to the salaries and programs at this school, not to bonuses."
Skinkis pointed out that half of his bonus last year was a retention bonus and that all administrators at RBHS received bonuses last year. This year all administrators' bonuses will be determined by progress toward the same goals.
In 2020 the school board will work on developing a strategic plan to determine the future direction of the school.
"Where do the taxpayers want to spend the money?" Smithing asked. "Do they want to spend it down, do they want to keep conservative? There's a lot of competing factors."