First-rate schools don't come at cut-rate prices

Opinion

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KRISTINE GAUGER

While I find it distasteful to disclose even public officials' salaries, I feel compelled to correct a glaring error published not once, but twice in letters written by Ralph McDarmont ("D95 board ignoring mandate against tax hike," LETTERS, May 25). It is obvious that Mr. McDarmont has an ax to grind against School District 95 Superintendent Dr. Douglas Rudig.

Dr. Rudig does not earn $200,000 per year; this year's salary package was approximately $159,000. To put this figure into perspective, the Illinois State Board of Education's website (www.isbe.net) reveals that last year, the average salary of a superintendent in Cook County was $172,992, and $186,374 in DuPage County.

Superintendents in the surrounding elementary districts earned between $125,300 and $195,500 per year. In any field, salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience. Dr. Rudig has a doctorate and more than 30 years of experience as an educator.

I have children who attend Brook Park and S.E. Gross schools, and feel that education is far too important to go bargain shopping for administrators. You get what you pay for, and we are fortunate to have someone with Dr. Rudig's credentials managing our schools.

Our superintendent has many responsibilities, among them setting and directing curriculum for 1,000 students, keeping our students safe, overseeing the facilities, attending school board meetings, developing the strategic plan for the future, representing the district statewide and nationally, communicating to the community and ensuring that students meet the state's performance standards.

Unlike some school districts, District 95 does not have a business manager, so Dr. Rudig fills that role too. He manages the budget, works on financial forecasting with the school board, and negotiates with vendors and contractors. Whether a district has 200 students or 2,000 students has little bearing on these duties?"they are necessary just the same.

Mr. McDarmont believes that Brook Park and S.E. Gross schools have capable, hands-on principals. If you divided the superintendent's job between the two principals, they would have to receive pay raises with the increased responsibility, and they couldn't be as hands-on. I'm not sure this is a sacrifice that parents or the principals themselves want to make.

If the district did eliminate the superintendent position, that would save $159,000 per year. The estimated shortfall in the education fund next year is $1,000,000. Where will the remaining $841,000 be made up?

Consolidating with another neighboring school district is an interesting concept. Are any of the neighboring districts even open to consolidation, since most of them passed referendums in the last few years? Would the community support consolidation? Your plan introduces lots of questions, Mr. McDarmont. Perhaps you could attend the next few school board meetings to present your answers.

As for April's election results, the referendum was defeated by just 202 votes, with more than 1,200 people voting in favor of the tax increase. I served on the referendum committee, and will do so again next year if the school board passes a resolution to put another tax increase on the ballot.

Unfortunately, a majority of school referendums fail on their first effort, and it is common to make further budget cuts and try again. Our neighbors in Brookfield-Lyons School District 103, which serves the southeast part of Brookfield, took three attempts before their referendum finally passed last year. In the meantime, educational programs and extracurricular activities were reduced or eliminated. Imminent cuts are not an idle threat, but the reality of balancing the budget .

I believe the referendum failed because the steering committee did not have the time or resources to communicate the facts about the school district's financial situation to the entire community.

A lot of parents do not understand the state-mandated accounting system used by school districts. Mr. McDarmont mistakenly thinks infrastructure improvements took dollars away from education. Facilities improvements are paid for from the buildings fund, which is completely separate from the education fund.

By law, money in the education fund cannot be used for any purpose other than direct instructional expenses, such as textbooks, school and office supplies, technology, teacher and support staff salaries and benefits, professional development and extracurricular programs.

Issuing bonds is another way to address the shortfall, but they are only a short-term solution, since the money still must be repaid. In years past, District 95 has borrowed to make up deficits in the education fund.

But that strategy is like using a credit card to pay for groceries and day-to-day living expenses while only making the minimum monthly payments. It is fiscally irresponsible to pay for today's educational expenses five years from now?"the debt will eventually catch up to the schools. The end result is mortgaging the educational futures of the community's children.

Parents at both schools have been filling in the funding gaps for years. The Brook Park Council and the S.E. Gross Parent Teacher Organization conduct fundraisers and spend thousands of dollars each year purchasing things like computers, televisions and VCRs for the classrooms, musical instruments, library books and instructional materials requested by teachers.

A majority of District 95 families generously give of their time and talents for the benefit of the students. Each parent who helps out in a classroom, tutors students or assists the office staff with clerical work saves the district money and helps stretch limited funding further.

If anyone in the community ever has questions about the school district's spending, it's easy to find answers. You can contact Dr. Rudig or any of the community-elected school board members, attend school board meetings or community forums or simply come to the district office at Gross School and ask to see the budget. This information is not a secret, and as a taxpayers, you have the right to know.

Mr. McDarmont, stop your personal attacks of the superintendent and look at the big picture. You are doing the children of the community a huge disservice by distracting attention from the real issues School District 95 is facing: increasing costs, inadequate state funding, and local funding severely limited by state-imposed property tax caps. The money has to come from somewhere. It is unrealistic to expect a first rate education at cut rate prices.

If you are dissatisfied with the school district, then you have three choices: pay for a private school, move to another district or get involved with the schools and work constructively to improve the quality of education. I challenge you to be part of the solution instead of repeatedly complaining about the supposed problems. The children, our schools, and our entire community benefit when everyone works together.

? Ed. note. The $200,000 figure referenced McDarmont's letter specifically included Dr. Rudig's salary and benefits, not salary alone. Kristine Gauger is a Brookfield resident.

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