MOKENA, Ill. (STMW) – The southwest suburban Mokena School District 159 board elected new officers at a special meeting last week, but the district’s old problems cropped up, too.

There were signs at Tuesday’s meeting of the divisiveness that marked the previous board’s stint, as board members argued whether to change officers’ terms from the two-year norm to one year. Then board member Frank Ventura predicted during a phone interview Wednesday that the district will rank dead last next year in spending per pupil among all Chicago-area school districts.

Records show the district had the fourth-lowest cost per pupil of all the Chicago collar-county school districts for the 2008-09 school year, at $7,426 per student. Since then, the district has laid off teachers and aides, cut extracurriculars and made plans to scale back its music and physical education programs next school year.

“I predict that in the fiscal year coming up, we will be the lowest,” Ventura said.

The cuts have come as the district has failed in three attempts to get voters to approve a property tax rate increase. But the district raised registration, technology and locker fees, and Ventura, who was elected board secretary, said the board expects to have a balanced budget in two years.

New board president John Troy said board members would have to work together to meet the challenges of the financial shortfall.

“The biggest challenges are when you’re cutting programs for children, and that’s just not a fun time,” Troy said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Ventura said the best-case scenario “when you have that funding level” is to have a “safe learning environment and a basic education.” He said there will be few, if any, extra activities or opportunities for District 159 students in the near future.

“Those (extracurricular activities) are things that can really make a difference in a kid’s life,” Ventura said. “We have a first-class fire department, a first-class park district, a great library. It’s very challenging. We’ve got the professionals, but we can’t offer the programs.”

Troy and Ventura disagreed during the Tuesday meeting on how long officers’ terms should be, with Troy saying he favored one-year terms. When Ventura, who favors two-year terms, walked out of the meeting before it was adjourned, it might have appeared to be a sign of the divisiveness that often plagued the previous board. But Ventura said he had told the other board members ahead of time that he would have to leave early for a family matter.

Ventura said it doesn’t matter to him personally whether he serves a one- or two-year term as an officer but said it “takes a great deal of effort and tremendous responsibility” to be a board officer.

But Troy said, “I think we’ve elected some really talented people and everyone should be given an opportunity to serve. These are challenging positions that require a lot of time and energy, and we should pass that burden around.”

The board agreed to discuss term limits at Wednesday’s regular board meeting.

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