Where Did the Tax Hike Go? Fact-Checking District 65 Finances

It’s a paradox of Evanston that fiscal hawks and taxpayer advocates focus on City finances, but it’s the two school districts that collect and spend most of our property tax dollars. Our K-8 system slips by with, generally, lack of attention, since at any given time most Evanston households don’t have kids in that system. Hot-button issues like redistricting or the closing or construction of a school draw a spotlight, but generally curriculum is too little discussed and school finances even less. If District 65 is getting a lot of attention it is usually because there is a problem.

District 65 is now getting a lot of attention and there is a problem. A couple big ones, actually.

First is finances. While District 202 managed to survive the pandemic financially intact, District 65 is now reportedly again staring at deficits — even after a massive tax increase referendum in 2017, whose money didn’t start to flow into the district until 2019.

At the all-candidate forum I moderated a few weeks ago, several challengers had no problem concluding financial mismanagement, while one or more incumbents placed the blame on “structural deficit” and argued that the recent tax hike wasn’t intended to solve problems, just serve as a stopgap. My role as moderator was not to quarrel, but I sure didn’t remember that from the barrage of fliers we all got a few years ago.  So I did a little digging. Verdict: the challengers have this one right. Any argument that the hike wasn’t supposed to get us any farther than we are now is blowing smoke up voters’ noses.

When the referendum was being put on the ballot in late 2016, then-Supt. Goren represented District spending to be $14,000 per student. A D65 web page still represents that number as $14,150 per student, even tho the 2016-2017 number was over $14,500. The need for more money was attributed primarily to enrollment growth in an environment of tax caps.

The referendum ran a well-funded campaign that had no organized opposition. Not a single slick postcard or speech said “by 2021 we’ll be broke again.” On the contrary, the District itself said that a “successful referendum … would eliminate current projected deficits through 2025.” After it passed, the Superintendent reaffirmed that, saying “We now have enough resources to be deficit free until the 2025 school year.” The District agreed, saying, “at least through 2025” and that that timeframe “was determined based on the advice of financial advisors.”

So, yeah, no. This was not supposed to be a band-aid after which the District would soon return with its hands out again, threatening school closures. It was supposed to be a "once-in-a-generation ask." In fact, enrollment was the supposed big driver of the need for more cash, but that growth plateaued or is declining (enrollment magically peaked in the year the District ran the referendum at 7,959, was down to 7,832 in 2018-19, and may be far lower now). By the logic of 2017, we should be able to put some money in the bank.  So what happened?

From the alleged $14,000 per student stated publicly in 2017, the District spent a reported $16,372 per student in 2019-2020, an increase of nearly 16% in just 3 years, far more than inflation. Note that the “reported” per-student number doesn’t count millions of dollars in “debt, capital, birth-3 programs, adult and community services, and Park School” expenses. What the District actually wrote checks for in 2019 works out to over $19,000 for every student in the system, even tho much of that spending is not on the average student, and some of it is not on schoolchildren at all.

One challenger charge is that the District has hired too many new administrators. Fact-checking doesn’t disagree. State records show that for over a decade, District 65 has spent between 15% and 19% more than the average Illinois school district on administration.  In the last 10 years of reports, the administrator-to-student ratio in District 65 climbed by an astonishing 30%!

Not only does the District have more bureaucrats per pupil than the norm, we pay them a lot more, too, an average of over $140,000 — that’s not top salary, that’s an average. That figure is 26.3% more than the average district in Illinois.

Multiply the extra headcount by the handsome paychecks, and the amount per pupil spent on administration seems far more than a typical Illinois school district.

When school boards and employees want more money, they say it is for “education.” Anyone who opposes a tax hike must hate schools, or kids, right? But awarding raises isn’t the same as more “education.” Neither is hiring more bureaucrats. In fact, the three schools in Evanston on which District 65 spends the least — Willard, Kingsley, and Lincolnwood — are among the best performing. District 65’s own data contradicts that simply opening up a wallet for the challenges the District perpetually claims to address is the answer.

The above was all I had time for in my role as citizen in the short time since the forum, but, unless something’s changed since I was watchdogging the schools years ago, I suspect that the District also overspends on consultants, and other vendors.

There are other reasons to favor new blood in the District 65 election over the incumbents. But on the argument over District finances, it is no contest. District 65 taxpayers are paying too much money, for too little result for students, parents, and the community.

-- Jeff Smith