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BYRON – The Byron School Board approved modest staff reductions at its March meeting to address declining enrollment and a $27 million reduction in the value of the Exelon nuclear facility. The Board retained the Academically Talented program, of which the District has always been proud; art and Speaking, Listening, Performing at the middle school were also retained, in response to strong community support.

With attrition, as well as new positions created to accommodate curriculum adjustments, the net number of teacher positions eliminated is six – all were honorable dismissals. Even with these reductions, Byron class sizes will remain among the smallest in the region.

“We understand that staff reductions are difficult, but they are necessary,” School Board President Doug Floski said. “Byron had an Education Fund deficit in five of the last six years; enrollment has been declining for 13 years; the District will lose $800,000 annually due to a reduction in the value of the nuclear facility. Our employee health insurance costs are projected to rise 30 percent and our teacher salaries are the highest in the region. We simply have to reduce operating costs. We are grateful that Dr. Hammack and administrators presented a plan that will lower costs while maintaining excellent opportunities for all students.”

Since 2003, the District’s enrollment has dropped by 275 students; through 2020, that number will reach 462 students – more than the population of the District’s middle school. However, since 2009, employment costs have increased by $4 million, due to excessive hiring and retirement benefits afforded teachers via collective bargaining which may total in excess of $50,000 per teacher.

Teaching staff reductions approved Thursday by the Board include: one District counselor – from a counselor/psychologist/social worker staff of eight; one teacher at Mary Morgan Elementary School, one position at the middle school and three positions at the high school, where class size had shrunk to fewer than 12 students in more than 50 classes. The reductions were made following more than 300 man hours of research and study by the superintendent, administrators and Board members, and following 10 meetings/hearings where public comment was heard.

With these reductions, Byron will employ nearly the same number of certified staff employed when enrollment was at its peak. And, Byron will remain among the top community unit school districts in the state, and the top district in the region, in terms of per-pupil spending.

Byron is not alone in the challenges it faces: Enrollment is declining in more than half of the 868 public school districts in Illinois, in part because the children of the youngest members of the “Baby Boom” are aging out of the system. (The Oregon School Board recently reduced staff in response to declining enrollment. The Ashton-Franklin Center School Board, facing a 10-year enrollment decline, will close that District’s middle school next year.)

What makes Byron unique however, are average teacher salaries of $69,214, which does not include benefits or District contributions to the teachers’ retirement program. Byron has 132 teachers, 59 of them earn $70,000 or more a year in salary alone; 16 earn $90,000 or more in salary alone. Those salaries were enhanced under the previous superintendent to include a 6 percent increase in each of a teacher’s final four years of service, plus a one-time bonus of $30,000.

“Our teachers work hard. We don’t begrudge them a good salary,” Floski said. “However, when financial cuts are necessary due to declining enrollment and a drop in tax base, those high salaries and end-of-career packages make the Board’s job more difficult. We cannot reduce salaries, we are contractually obligated to pay them. Therefore, if we need to reduce our employment costs, we have to cut staff.”

Some have asked the Board to move monies from other funds to the Education Fund in order to save the six jobs that were reduced. Board members said such moves are not possible.

“School Districts are restricted in how they spend tax dollars,” Bill Craig, Finance Committee chair, said. “We cannot levy for monies in one fund and spend them on something else. It’s dishonest and it doesn’t represent sound fiscal practices.”

“Even if we could, it would be wrong to rob other funds to pay for staff that is not crucial to student success, especially during a period of financial challenge,” Craig said. “Small classes are expensive, and Byron has an excessive number of small high school classes.”

The Board also rejected the suggestion to use precious reserve funds to pay for teacher salaries. Floski said Byron’s reserve funds are lower than auditors and the Illinois State Board recommend. Regardless, the $9 million the District has in reserves would only fund the District for three to four months. Depleting those reserves is not a solution to the District’s financial challenges, according to an independent third-party analysis conducted by PMA Associates.

Board members noted that the District is not putting the entire financial burden on staff members. The District has reduced its legal fees; cost controls have been imposed on all accounts, and purchasing costs have been significantly reduced. Board members said the superintendent and other administrators will continue to search for ways to cut costs without impacting student achievement.

Floski said the Board and Dr. Hammack share a commitment to excellence for all students that remains absolute, despite staff reductions. Test scores are on the rise in Byron after a multi-year period of stagnation. The District is, once again, ranking high on data based surveys of top districts in the state.

“We aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize the progress our students have made these last three years,” Floski said.

Board member Carol Nauman, herself a retired teacher, said the Board sympathizes with employees who will lose their jobs.

“There’s just nothing worse, as a Board member, than letting talented people go,” Nauman said. “We give these professionals full credit for their hard work and we very much appreciate everything they have done for our students.”

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