Lake Ridge Superintendent: Stand together to weather storm

2013-03-02T00:02:00Z 2013-03-02T23:50:07Z Lake Ridge Superintendent: Stand together to weather stormCarmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

CALUMET TOWNSHIP | Officials at Lake Ridge Schools are looking for a long-term fix to a $1.7 million budget deficit the district is facing next year.

Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley reiterated Friday the district is dealing with several difficult decisions, one of which is to close an elementary school.

"These decisions will be based on facts and data, and will take into consideration input from the community," Johnson-Shirley said. "The severity of Lake Ridge’s financial problems became apparent in December 2012. Since that time, many options have been explored. The district administrators appreciate the comments and ideas from the community, and applaud their willingness to step up and volunteer in areas that will help offset costs and defray expenses."

Nearly 200 parents, teachers and community members attended the Feb. 25 School Board meeting to protest the board's plan to close an elementary school and contract out maintenance, custodial and janitorial services. Administrators are considering closing Grissom Elementary School or Hosford Park Elementary School, but no decision has been made.

A few parents proposed holding fundraisers during Monday's meeting, but Johnson-Shirley emphasized "that's not going to do the trick." She said the problem is much bigger than people realize. Johnson-Shirley said three public forums will be held over the next few weeks to provide facts and obtain input from residents.

Johnson-Shirley said in the past few years to make ends meet, Lake Ridge has contracted out food service, which went from operating in a deficit to making a profit; outsourced transportation, which resulted in an annual savings of $600,000; switched to the state plan for insurance, which saved $1 million annually; closed Ensweiler Alternative Academy, saving $500,000 annually; and rented space to Head Start, which is an annual revenue source.

"Because of this proactive approach to budgeting, Lake Ridge has managed to stay on its financial feet," Johnson-Shirley said. "Unfortunately, the current fiscal challenges must be met with the same integrity and willingness to do what is necessary to sustain the entire district."

Johnson-Shirley said the current budget crunch is caused by several factors including, the 2 percent property tax cap, low tax collections, declining enrollment, state cuts and the 2008 recession. She said it wasn't until December tax collections that school officials realized they only had collected 76 percent of taxes, compared to 90 to 92 percent in previous years.

In addition, vouchers and charter schools are causing decreases in funding to public schools.

"Charter schools and vouchers are putting a dent in our enrollment," Johnson-Shirley said. "I talked to a parent recently who is keeping her middle school child in Lake Ridge but using a voucher to take her high school student to Andrean. Those things hurt us."

Johnson-Shirley said the current enrollment is 1,878 students, down 36 from the previous school year. She estimated the district has lost 50 to 100 students each year for the past five years.

"I understand the community's anger at the thought of closing an elementary school, outsourcing support staff, salary cuts and the loss of academic programs," she said. "But people have to understand that this situation is not the result of anything that we have done wrong."

Johnson-Shirley also emphasized that over the past eight years, the district has raised test scores, improved academics and provided cutting-edge programs.

"If the Lake Ridge School Board, administrators, support staff, parents, students and community members work together, Lake Ridge will weather this storm as they have done in the past," she said.

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