Since December, Niles Township's District 219 school board has been talking about its plans to redirect resources into the core areas of math and English as well as to save money.
Each time, board members have noted that the district’s operating expense per pupil--$21,990 in 2009--is the second highest in the state.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, it is the second-highest for high school districts, coming in behind Lake Forest Community High School District 115, whose operating expense per pupil that year was $23,789.
So what makes it so high, and what are District 219 taxpayers getting for their money?
That question doesn’t have any easy answers, said Jim Szczepaniak, District 219’s community relations director.
Under state reporting rules, here is how the operating expense per pupil is defined: “The gross operating cost of a school district (excepting summer school, adult education, bond principal retired, and capital expenditures) divided by the nine-month average daily attendance for the regular school term.”
But in reality, about 88 percent of the per pupil operating expense for District 219 is the education fund, and the bulk of the expenses in that fund are salaries and benefits, said Paul O’Malley, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services.
“The good part is that we have a highly educated and high quality faculty,” Szczepaniak said.
Nearly 87 percent hold at least master’s degrees, compared with under 60 percent statewide.
While the average Illinois operating expense per pupil in high schools is about half of what District 219 spends--$11,197--neighboring high school districts spend nearly as much as District 219. Evanston Township High School District 202, for example, spent $20,203 in the 2009 school year, coming at No. 5 among high school districts in Illinois.
District 219 teachers are highly paid, with an average salary of almost $97,000, as are its administrators, with an average salary of $143,720. Both numbers are in excess of state averages, but some neighboring districts, including Maine Township High School District 207 and New Trier Township High School District 213, pay their teachers better and have lower operating expenses per pupil.
Class sizes among District 219 and neighboring districts are also similar, varying from 17 students in District 202 to 21 in New Trier Township High School District 203. District 219’s average class size was about 19 students.
“In reality, we are comparable to our neighbors,” O’Malley said.
Steve Grossman, a union representative, questioned whether the district was pursuing a strategy of hiring administrators while cutting teachers. But O’Malley said only one administrator was added to the roster last year: a second athletic director, so there would be one each at Niles West and Niles North.
Board president Robert Silverman has said that he doesn’t want the operating expense per pupil in District 219 to be second highest in the state. As part of a restructuring that moves more resources into the core areas of math, science and English, the district gave official notice that it would lay off 10 tenured teachers from the physical wellness and applied science and technology when the school year ends. The layoff is expected to saving the district about $1 million.
However, with increasing salaries and benefits for the remaining teachers, the district would have to cut more than $5 million from its budget to actually reduce the operating expense per pupil, O’Malley said. Cutting $1 million will only slow the growth of per-pupil spending, he said.
Last year’s restructuring involved tenured teachers receiving layoff notices but ending up being retained, while nontenured teachers were let go. It resulted in dropping the growth rate in per-pupil spending from 7.86 percent in the 2008-2009 academic year to 3.18 in the 2009-2010 period.
At the Feb. 7 meeting where the school board approved the layoff notices, Pankaj Sharma, the president of the Niles Township Federation of Teachers, suggested that the district look at reducing the operating expense per pupil by increasing student attendance.
Because the operating expense per pupil is based on the average daily attendance, not on the number of registered students, cutting down on the number of absences would actually decrease the per-pupil cost reported by the state, Sharma said.
On the 2009 state school report card, Niles District 219 had an attendance rate of 93.6 percent, slightly lower than the state average of 93.9 percent.