Rockford budget cuts could hit educational programs

Jeff Kolkey

As finals loom, East High School science teacher Carol Johnston teaches a semester’s worth of chemistry in an hour.

From mildly complicated algebraic conversions and the law of conservation of matter (which, of course, cannot be created or destroyed) to solving for density and the makeup of a nucleus, Johnston reviews months of material in a 50-minute “zero hour.”

“Remember the popcorn test? You popped it and ate it, and that’s the part you remember,” Johnston reminds the class. “But you learned you cannot create or destroy mass. Water in the popcorn kernel boils, becoming vapor and allows the kernel to pop open.”

Johnston’s class is before the regular 9:30 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. school day. It’s offered to students because the district’s middle and high schools lost a period of the school day to 2004 budget cuts.

Zero hour may become another budget-cut casualty — along with athletics and the Fresh Start alternative school — despite a Rockford School System that’s in its strongest financial position in recent history.

But school administrators are forecasting a $4 million operating deficit in the district’s education fund, by far the district’s biggest expense in its $320.5 million budget, next year.

That means either trimming expenses or spending some of the district’s savings to cover the difference. The district’s Education Committee will discuss the possible effect of the cuts on the school district during a Tuesday night meeting.

All would feel effect

Administrators have produced a list of programs and educational services not required by the state as potential cuts.

Cutting back on the new Freshman Foundations and eliminating the Fresh Start alternative school would reverse the educational reforms the district’s vastly improved financial condition has allowed the past few years.

Smaller cuts, such as eliminating the $244,128 zero hour or $1.7 million athletics programs, could hurt even more.

There are about 75 students in three zero-hour classrooms each morning at East; two chemistry and one geometry.

For Corrine Keep, 16, the zero-hour class is a way to get ahead.

“I take it for extra credits so I don’t have to take as many classes senior year,” Keep said.

By the time the sophomore E-Rab pom-pom team member reaches her senior year, she’ll be able to take just two classes at East and simultaneously take dual credit classes, perhaps through Rock Valley College, earning college and high school credits.

That is, if the Rockford School District continues to offer the zero-hour classes.

For Vantele Turner, 16, the loss could cost him a shot at the district’s scholars diploma, a special designation for graduates who pass enough advanced classes.

And the loss of athletics would be a huge blow for students who take school seriously largely because passing grades are required to play, Turner said.

“They want to do good because they want to stay on the team,” said Turner, who runs on the E-Rab cross country team. “Without it, students wouldn’t be motivated.”

Business is good

If the school district were a business, this would be the third straight year of a business boom.

Last year ended with a $30.9 million surplus, nearly three times what had been forecast. And it’s “conservatively” estimated to grow 22 percent, to $37.8 million, this year.

With the good times has come increased spending. Not only were raises for teachers approved in a new labor agreement this year, the district has more educators on its payroll and more forecast in its proposed budget.

School board members voted to set aside $7 million of the district’s surplus for a technology upgrade. An additional $750,000 a was spent to hire 14 additional teachers for the district’s Freshman Foundations, now on the chopping block. The two-year-old Fresh Start program for students who otherwise might be headed for expulsion is costing the district $1.2 million a year.

Principals could come up with compromise

Among the list of cuts being considered is laying off nearly 45 middle and high school teachers to save $2.7 million.

That would be achieved by stuffing more kids into classrooms and eliminating “singletons,” classes requested by few students such as advanced calculus.

But East Chief Operating Officer Earl Hernandez said principals may be able to fight to protect academic programming by proposing more efficient ways to deliver education.

Hernandez said building principals may be able to come up with ways to save money that doesn’t take away core educational services, such as discontinuing the use of retired educators, who can make more money than young full-time teachers.

“I’ll make other cuts in the building that would keep us from having to cut academic classes,” Hernandez said. “The central office doesn’t want to cut educational programs any more than we do.”

Staff writer Jeff Kolkey can be reached at 815-987-1374 or at

What's next

The Rockford School District Education Committee will meet at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss budget reductions proposed to close a projected $4 million operating deficit in the education fund. The committee is expected to discuss what effect the cuts could have educationally.