OTTAWA— The warning signs have been abundantly clear for years.
School districts throughout the Illinois Valley and the state are suffering from a combination of dropping property tax dollars and increasingly expensive unfunded mandates from the state.
Meanwhile, teachers strike to earn more money and benefits and the public cries foul whenever the very threat of a program cut is made.
That leaves school districts with difficult choices.
In the village of Cherry in Bureau County, the elementary school has been forced to deactivate under such financial pressure. And on Monday, Ottawa Township High School began to make unpopular cuts and implement athletic participation fees to combat a $3.5 million deficit.
Board members voted 6-1 to eliminate the position held by building trades instructor David Keely, which puts an end to the building trades program. Board member Gene Duffy cast the lone “no” vote.
“We’re under severe financial difficulties,” said Superintendent Matt Winchester. “Any time you are forced to reduce your staff or eliminate an entire program that is beneficial to students is tough.”
Additionally, the district has implemented a “pay-to-play” plan for athletics. The fee schedule is as follows:
* $100 for football.
* $75 for golf, cross country, volleyball, swimming, tennis, soccer, basketball, wrestling, bowling, track, baseball and softball.
* $50 for pomerettes, cheerleading, chess team, scholastic bowl, speech team, IHSA Band, IHSA choir and bass fishing.
* Fees are waived for students who qualify for the free lunch program.
Many students and staff members attended the meeting Monday and presented the board a list of more than 300 student signatures asking the board not to cut Keely’s position.
But the district can no longer comply under its current financial position, said board member Karen Fisher.
“This type of decision is difficult especially when the human element is right there with Mr. Keely and the students supporting him,” she said. “But this one move is probably only the beginning. We know we are going to need to make more cuts as we try to find a way to manage the deficit.”
Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or firstname.lastname@example.org.