Highland Park, News

Seeing $1.2-million deficit coming, District 113 to begin planning for ‘hard’ decisions

District projects enrollment decrease to continue through at least 2029

With district officials projecting budget deficits over the next five years, the Township High School District 113 Board of Education agreed to start planning for those future budgets sooner rather than later.

The anticipated deficits were discussed as part of a five-year financial outlook shared by administrators at the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

According to that five-year projection, Ali Mehanti, assistant superintendent for finance, said a $1.2 million deficit is anticipated in the 2025-2026 school year.

A document breaking down the financial outlook shows that budget increasing in the following school years, with a projected deficit of nearly $3.6 million in 2028-2029.

Mehanti said he made the projections based on the Consumer Price Index being at 2.5 percent, in addition to assumptions with other factors, such as health insurance and contracts with the district’s faculty and staff.

“Those expenditures are outpacing the revenues,” he said.

Another significant factor in the future budgets is faculty retirements. Mehanti said 22 staff members, primarily teachers, are expected to retire at the end of the current school year, but so far only seven retirements are anticipated in both 2025 and 2026.

And like New Trier High School, officials are predicting a decline in student enrollment. There are currently 3,149 students between the district’s two schools: Highland Park and Deerfield high schools. By the 2029-2030 school year, that number is expected to decrease to 2,917.

But Superintendent Dr. Bruce Law said a reduction in students does not necessarily mean a reduction in teachers.

“The question becomes if we have a student moving in that requires a lot of special education services; then that becomes a different calculation,” he said. “It’s very difficult to say a reduction in students means a reduction in (full-time equivalency teachers) now. Of course, over time you should be getting to see this, but it’s hard just year after year to see this is going to correlate to that.”

Mehanti said he prepared future budgets on the assumption that all 22 retiring staff members will have their positions filled. He added that the projections could change.

During the board meeting, Mehanti revealed that, thanks to updated insurance numbers he recently received, officials are no longer anticipating a $133,000 deficit for the 2024-2025 school year.

“The good news is that our FY25 budget will be balanced as long as we don’t have any more staffing,” he said.

As for 2026 and beyond, though, he said it’s difficult to say what will happen. While the CPI is set at 3.4 percent for 2026, Mehanti said he used 2.5 as the number for future budgets, calling it a “safe assumption.” Other assumptions include health insurance rates and contracts with faculty and staff that will need to be negotiated in the future.

He described the future budget calculations as the district “being conservative.”

“We could make the projection look really good and balanced, but that’s just bad practice,” Mehanti said.

Law, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said there were a couple of reasons district officials wanted to bring the future deficits to the board’s attention.

One of them is so the next superintendent, in their first year with the district, doesn’t have to deal with a projected deficit of more than $1 million.

“I think we should be solving for FY26 this year when we have 22 retirements,” he said. “And so, then next year, the first job of the new superintendent is not to have to make all these cuts.”

Beyond that, he said it makes sense from a management perspective.

“I think this is good government,” Law said. “I think this is good management, but this is going to be hard.”

Board President Dan Struck agreed that it would make sense to work on the 2026 budget earlier rather than later.

“We have a responsibility to help this district beyond our terms, to leave it in better shape or in decent shape for those who fill our seats in the future,” he said. “And this information is central to our role in approving a budget and ultimately being the people who have to vote if there are ever (reductions in force) and the like.”

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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