By Ben Velderman

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Like a lot of school districts around the country, Illinois’ Springfield Public Schools are in serious financial trouble.

The district is projecting an $11 million deficit, and it’s causing stress and strain on district leaders. The budget woes are forcing officials to consider all kinds of undesirable remedies, such as teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and school closures.

Same old story, different district, right?

Not quite.

While there may be nothing new under the sun, the Springfield district did something a tad unusual to solve its budget problem: It asked residents for guidance.

Last May, the Springfield school board voted unanimously to create a Community Budget Review Committee to work with administrators in identifying ways to balance the books.  The committee – which is currently staffed by eleven Springfield residents who were chosen by school board members – was charged with making recommendations for resolving the budget crisis for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

The “all hands on deck” attitude was short-lived.

Two weeks after the citizens’ group was formed, a group of school board members questioned the wisdom of allowing residents to sift through the district’s $174 million budget. As if citizens don’t have a perfect right – or responsibility – to sift through public school district financial records.

Board member Judy Johnson told the Journal-Register that the group’s effort would be redundant, as the board’s finance committee already reviews the budget.

“I don’t know why they’re reinventing the wheel,” said Johnson.

Board Vice President Bill Looby worried that the board was abdicating its budget responsibilities to unelected volunteers, and board member Nick Stoutamyer suggested that the citizens’ group wouldn’t have enough time to make recommendations for the 2012-13 school year.

Despite those reasonable concerns, the Community Budget Review Committee stuck to its guns and dug through the budget.

In August, the group asked leaders of Springfield’s school employee unions if they’d be willing to take pay cuts for all members to avoid layoffs of younger teachers and other staff members.

“They were not comfortable answering,” Community Budget Review Committee Chairman David Milling told the Journal-Register. “I understand how sensitive it is, but I think it’s something that has to be addressed.”

Union says community survey constitutes an ‘unfair labor practice’

Earlier this fall, Milling suggested that taxpayers at large be asked the same question: Would they prefer to see younger school employees be laid off or all employees given a pay cut?

He reasoned that Springfield taxpayers should have more input on the proportion of the district’s budget that is devoted to labor costs, reported the Journal-Register. After all, 80 percent of the district’s budget is consumed by salaries and benefits, and employee pay has risen by more than 16 percent since 2009.

But Millings’ plan to educate the public and gather feedback drew the full wrath of both the Springfield Education Association and its state affiliate, the Illinois Education Association.

IEA official Carolyn Sloan said the committee would be “committing an unfair labor practice” if it posed the survey question to taxpayers.

“Our issue is you can’t take that (question) to the community and engage in a debate with the community. Those conversations are reserved exclusively for bargaining,” Sloan told the Journal-Register.

Board member Scott McFarland agreed that the survey would be tantamount to collective bargaining, though the district’s attorney defended the survey idea.

In the end, the citizens’ group decided to scrap the survey altogether.

What a dirty shame. The union says the public should have no input on how much, or in what manner, the district spends on labor costs, and the school board agrees.

Who’s watching out for the interests of taxpayers and students in this situation? Apparently nobody connected to the Springfield school establishment.

Spend all the money until it’s gone

By taking its job of saving the district from financial ruin seriously, the Community Budget Review Committee apparently made district and union leaders very nervous.

If citizens dig too much, they might realize how much money is wasted through the teachers union collective bargaining agreement. Perpetual pay raises, low- or no-cost health insurance and generous pension plans won’t sit well with taxpayers who are being stretched to their breaking point by the sluggish economy and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s massive new tax increases.

If Milling and his fellow committee members started drawing attention to all the excess that’s been larded into the teachers’ contract, the public might not passively sit by and watch student programs get slashed and community schools shuttered.

They would demand reform and accountability. They would demand that student needs come before adult perks.

Those fires have already been stoked by reform-minded community members who are concerned about the leadership practices of Springfield Superintendent Walter Milton.

Milton has come under withering criticism from several board members for his big-spending ways and shoddy record keeping.

According to the Journal-Register, board member Lisa Funderburg recently suggested that Milton’s budget plan is to keep spending until all the money is gone.

“The financial condition of the district is deteriorating by anyone’s standards,” said Funderburg. “When you overdraw your checkbook by $11 million, you don’t find that to be a problem? The superintendent is ultimately responsible for the financial situation of the district.”

Springfield Alderman Kris Theilen joined in the criticism of Milton during a public meeting in October.

“As a parent and citizen of this community, I am very concerned about the direction Dr. Milton is taking, and I wonder how long it will be allowed to continue,” Theilen said last month, according to the paper.

Now members of the citizens’ committee have gotten in on the act by questioning the accuracy of Milton’s reports about staffing levels and budget estimates.

“ … The numbers change all the time,” complained committee member Cheryl Wise. “I just don’t know that the numbers provided here are accurate or anywhere close to accurate.”

Milton, who is African-American, hinted that the criticism may be racially motivated. Local NAACP members even attended a school board meeting to show “support” for Milton, the Journal-Register reported.

“Our city has an inescapable past,” Milton told the paper in September. “I’ve never experienced anything like this – I’m just left wondering about motives.”

Meanwhile Springfield residents are left wondering what’s happening to their school district and what they can do about it.

The sad answer is “not much,” because the teachers union, school board and administration have decided to tell taxpayers to mind their own business, even though they pay for the district and everything that happens there is quite clearly their business.

The only remaining question is how long citizens will tolerate being left out in the cold while school officials and union leaders decide how to waste even more of their money.