DUNLAP — The more than 600 parents, teachers, students and residents of the Dunlap School District 323 who packed Wednesday's discussion of the consequences of next year's $2.1 million deficit made one point abundantly clear.
If the School Board approves the proposed teacher layoffs, program cuts and fee increases — and there's every indication that it will — it will be one wildly unpopular decision.
"I am alarmed, saddened and ashamed of the sharp cuts aimed at the fine arts program," said Tina Holloway, a band instructor at Dunlap Valley Middle School. "These would have a disastrous effect and should be tabled immediately. Please do not let this happen to Dunlap."
Holloway returned to her seat in the full gymnasium inside Hickory Grove Elementary School, the newest school in the expanding district, to a standing ovation and more than a couple of "Yay Tinas" audible above the applause. In fact, each one of the 40 speakers at the two-hour-plus public forum was applauded at the conclusion. Speaker after speaker — the first eight were teachers in the district defending a program — took to the microphone to extol the virtues of art, band, orchestra, physical education, libraries and every other program that would be touched by the proposal to bridge the deficit.
"Tightening our belts (in administrative costs) would be a more prudent decision," said John Allison, co-president of the district's teachers' union. "People are buying our product. More people want our product that we cannot produce without those people there."
He turned and pointed to the group who wore union T-shirts and stood together in the bleachers, more than 200 strong. The comment drew the third standing ovation of the night, and the comment portion of the meeting was just getting started.
Under the proposal, the Dunlap school district would lay off up to 20 teachers, increase student fees, reduce programs, eliminate bus routes and freeze administrative and noncertified staff salaries to close a $2.1 million budget gap projected for the 2014-15 school year.
Superintendent Jay Marino opened the meeting by explaining that the deficit, on the board's radar screen for several years, was caused by a rapidly increasing school population and declining property tax revenues. In fact, Marino said, the district is operating with a deficit this school year, but didn't have to cut programs or staff to get by.
"More kids and expenditures, along with decreasing new revenues, means a deficit," Marino said.
Several speakers said administration overspending in past years had as much to do with the deficit as did the official explanation. They referenced a bloated administrative staff and capital purchases, such as the $2 million roundabout on Allen Road in front of Hickory Grove school and the recent $5 million athletic field improvements, including the area's first artificial turf football field.
"If you can afford a Mercedes, great," said Trent Metzger, "but if you can't afford the Mercedes, then don't buy it if you can't make the payment."
Page 2 of 2 - Marino defended both purchases. He said the turf field is an investment that will pay itself off in a number of years in maintenance savings over real grass and that it gets more use by more students rather than only for Friday night football games. The roundabout was an engineer-recommended intersection upgrade that was a part of the bond issue that voters in the district approved, he said.
Metzger proposed the district dip into its educational reserve fund of more than $22 million to cover the deficit and avoid any cuts or layoffs.
"If the fund wasn't developed to handle a need like this, then why was it developed," Metzger said.
Marino said the board would analyze Wednesday's discussion, but there was a "high consensus" for the proposal among board members.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @scotthilyard.