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Public budget hearing draws mostly empty seats

When the time finally arrived Tuesday night for a public hearing on the Ken-Ton school district's proposed $147.7 million budget, the cafeteria seats in Kenmore East High School were mostly empty.

That's probably because the budget development process had been pretty much a months-long public hearing, which attracted vocal crowds during a series of budget work sessions and participation by hundreds of people in an online budget survey.

"I would challenge anyone to find any school district that's more transparent," said School Board President Bob Dana. "Nothing was unfolded here that we haven't heard before."

Well, there was some new information Tuesday night.

District officials announced they had reached an agreement with the Kenmore Teachers Association, the district's largest union, for a three-year contract that doesn't provide raises and reduces the size of automatic step increases by $1.2 million. Further details on that provision weren't immediately available.

The contract, which takes effect July 1, also increases employee contributions to health care premiums each year and the co-pays in the prescription drug plan. That latter provision is expected to save approximately $750,000 during the life of the contract.

Last year, members of the KTA and other unions representing district employees, as well as nonrepresented employees, agreed to concessions to cut costs and preserve jobs. Earlier this year, members of the Kenmore Administrators Association agreed to a three-year contract that eliminated step increases and also boosted employee contributions for health care premiums and prescription drugs.

"Once again, they stepped up and made some concessions and so forth that's going to help this district move forward," Dana said of the KTA. "There is no doubt that without their efforts, cuts would have certainly been deeper and children surely would have felt the pain."

Even so, there were deep cuts and painful decisions. A total of 75 jobs were eliminated. Class size guidelines were increased by one. Some varsity sports were combined and three modified sports were eliminated.

"In the process of closing a [$12.5 million] deficit, you end up going places you don't want to go," said Gerald Stuitje, assistant superintendent for finance, who handled the budget presentation Tuesday night. "It's not a budget that any of our constituencies would be happy with."

If there's a silver lining, Stuitje said, is that the focus was kept on minimizing the impact to students. "I think we did that to a great extent," he said. The state-mandated 2 percent cap on the tax levy increase wasn't an issue for Ken-Ton in this budget. In fact, the tax levy of roughly $72.2 million is almost $1.6 million under their cap.

"If I just left it there, it sounds great," Stuitje said.

But the property tax rate is increasing by 4.97 percent, because the implementation of the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with NRG/Huntley reduced the tax base by $193 million. And other taxpayers have to carry the tax load.