District 181 parents call for gifted program reduction

Hinsdale, IL

With budget cuts a sure thing, some parents are bringing a gifted program under fire that they claim is too costly, and seemingly immune from reductions.

Several Community Consolidated School District 181 parents are asking board members to consider cuts to the program, which costs the district about $1 million a year. District officials say a complete elimination of the program is not in the works.

The district spends more than $800,000 in salaries for the gifted program, according to resident Rich Simon, who spoke at a School Board meeting Monday, Dec. 14. Simon said the program should be scrutinized as officials are strategizing budget reductions for next year.

“It is difficult to get the district to confirm the number of students in the program. They tell us the percentage of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in the gifted program is anywhere between 20 percent and 40 percent,” Simon said.

District officials were unable to provide information on the number of students involved in the program, or an estimated cost per student, as of press time.

“Why does such a small part of our student population get this program’s benefits?” said Simon. “I have had children in the program, but I don’t agree with the labeling that comes with participating in the program.”

The board is examining a variety of cost reduction options to cut $1.8 million from next year’s budget.

The list included an option for eliminating one full-time gifted teacher, a move that could save the district $85,000. The list also contained an option for restructuring transportation needs for the program at a possible reduction of $26,000, as well as cutting $16,000 in program supplies.

The gifted program could face some minor cost reductions in 2010, but significant cuts are not going to happen in the near future, administrators said.

“Quite honestly, we don’t feel it should be eliminated at this point in time,” said interim Superintendent Robert Sabatino. “We have proposed possible reductions in the number of gifted teachers, restructuring transportation and reductions in supplies for the program. But we plan to continue the program in one shape or another,” Sabatino said.

Hinsdale resident Susanne King, mother of two students attending Madison Elementary School, said she would prefer to see the district spend more money on adding teachers to reduce class sizes instead of funding the gifted program.

“I appeal to the board to reduce class sizes, which has a longer lasting benefit to students, than continue to invest in a program that benefits a small percentage of our students,” King said.

“We’ve spent $3.5 million over the last four years on the gifted program. How did it become such a priority?”

According to figures released by the district, overall salaries of teachers for the gifted program have risen to $828,135 at the end of the 2008-09 school year. With the addition of a coordinator for the program this year, salaries now total $892,000.

To be eligible for the program, which provides unique and enriched educational opportunities to students, children are tested in the second and fifth grades.

Some residents, including Teri Zeidel, said testing for the program was excessive,

“Second-graders are tested six times,” Zeidel said. “They are too young to be tested this much.”

Parents also suggested the district’s current curriculum can satisfy the needs of the gifted students.

“This (program) infers our teachers are not competent at assessing children. As bright as the students are (in the gifted program), they should be taught their appropriate grade curriculum,” Zeidel said.

Penny Davey, a District 181 teacher, said she represented the gifted specialists and supported the program.

“All children need to be challenged at a level that is appropriate to them,” Davey said. “ACE is a safe place, an oasis for some students. For some students, it is life changing.”

Resident Susan Dunphy said other high-functioning school districts provide a high quality education without the expense incurred by District 181.

“Butler School District in Oak Brook does not have a gifted program. They spend $3,000 a year on enrichment materials for the five kids who have been deemed gifted out of their 500 students, and their teachers use these materials to differentiate in the class room,” Dunphy said. “District 181 spends over $1 million, and has 10 highly-paid gifted specialist who have their own classrooms that provide smaller class sizes.

“I ask the board to stop the pervasive focus and spending on the top second- and fifth-grade test takers, and create a more equitable education for all,” Dunphy said.