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School Districts Balance Budgets With Lots of Uncertainty

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Grant Middle School in Springfield, Ill.

This photo taken Oct. 27, 2010, shows students, from left, Lillian Duvall, Khaleah Jackson, and Jacob Vondebur, participating in their seventh grade history class lesson at Grant Middle School in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman/AP)

As Illinois continues to cut education spending, school districts must work harder to balance their budgets while staying in compliance with state and federal mandates.

School districts in east central Illinois are handling the problem in different ways.

Steven Poznic started his career back in 1978 in industrial education. For him, teaching wood working, auto mechanics, and welding required a lot of creativity.

Thirty five years later, Poznic is now the Superintendent of the Villa Grove School District in Douglas County, which has roughly 650 students spread out across a grade school, middle school, and elementary school.

With the district facing a $686,000 deficit this year, the Poznic is having to employ a different type of creativity.

“What happened this year when we developed our budget, it finally triggered what the Illinois State Board of Education calls a three year deficit reduction plan that was required for us to develop,” Poznic said.

The Villa Grove School District must take its deficit and divide it over three years, so that roughly $229,000 is reduced each year. However, there is an added complication.

Poznic said Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget for next year would add an additional $377,000 to the school district’s deficit. The Villa Grove school board has now revised its budgetary reductions for next year to half a million dollars.

Among the changes: no art at the high school and cuts to certain afterschool programs like cheerleading and golf. There will also be fewer kindergarten and first-grade sections, no printers in the classrooms, and a couple of positions for special education and physical education will be eliminated.

“Across the board, there are quite a few cuts. As we went through this it’s a painful process, and it’s difficult and it’s frustrating because we feel like we’ve done a good job here managing our funds,” Poznic said. “This situation has been thrust upon us, and there’s really not much we can do to control it.”

As a way to cushion the blow, the Villa Grove School Board is considering a sports co-op with the nearby Heritage School District, which will allow them to share physical activity space. 

“They will send students, for example, to Villa Grove, and they will participate in our football program,” he said. “We’re going to do similar things with programs that they offer that we don’t offer. A good example of that is bass fishing. It’s an activity that can be a competition level activity in the (Illinois High School Association). Heritage offers that, and we do not.”

Villa Grove has had to make all of these cuts despite having cut its budget by a quarter of a million dollars a few years ago.

It is not the only school district in this position.

The Charleston School District in Coles County has four times as many students as Villa Grove. Previously, it eliminated roughly $2.6 million from its budget in 2009 and 2010.

“I think we were ahead of the game,” said Charleston Superintendent Jim Littleford. “Our intent at that time was to do enough to give us some time of up to five years  - assuming that the revenues were the same that we were getting from the state – to not have to make any more cuts. We were hoping the state would right the ship and we wouldn’t have to do anything.”

Over the last three years, the Charleston School District has lost more than $2 million in state aid, and Littleford is projecting another million dollar hit next year. 

Charleston will not have to do any major cuts this time around, but Littleford said if things do not improve, the district will have to look for new revenue, and likely cut more programs. He said P.E. and Fine Art are on the table for the first time.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep,” Littleford said. “You get into (the) education business. You get into it to help children and to provide education to kids. When you’re not able to do that in the manner of which you’ve been able to do it, then it really causes some hardships for you.”

Villa Grove and Charleston are just two examples, but state funding cuts affect all school districts statewide.

Under the state funding formula, the minimum cost to educate students in Illinois is $6,119 per pupil. School districts are expected to cover what they can of that amount, and the state ideally picks up the rest of the tab. There is also an element, called the poverty grant, to provide more support for schools with low income students.

But in recent years, the state has not been able to meet its obligations to schools. Starting in Fiscal Year 2012, lawmakers failed to allocate enough funds for General State Aid, and schools were told to only expect 95 percent of the combined $6,119 per pupil amount and poverty grant claims.

The following year, the situation grew worse with pro-rated state aid dropping to 89 percent. Based on Gov. Quinn’s proposed budget, school leader are expecting an even larger dip for next year.

“It can’t go any lower, and it needs to come up from where it is currently,” said Christopher Koch, who is the superintendent for the Illinois State Board of Education. “We have two districts this year who could not make payroll, who just said this year we can’t do it.”

Koch said more cuts are not realistic, especially when schools are required to meet new mandates for teacher training, and tougher standards for students in meeting math and reading goals.

“We’re trying to make a lot of really critical and necessary improvements, and we’re doing it at a time when we’ve been seeing increased reductions in the budget,” he said. “That’s why the board this year is saying that simply needs to stop.”

Koch is urging lawmakers to raise education funding by $874 million for K-12 education. But Gov. Quinn wants to cut about $308 million in order to deal with pension costs.

“You know,” he added. “I’d much rather see money go into prevention, and making sure that all of our students have a basic education, than later spending a lot more money to….incarcerate them or not have them making salaries that they can pay back to our economy.”

As state officials argue over how much money should go to schools, districts are stuck in the middle guessing over how much they have to cut.

The State Board of Education’s assessment of a district’s financial health shows more than 100 school districts dropped out of the highest financial ranking in the past year and the number of districts in the lowest category of financial health has more than doubled.

By the time districts get to the lowest financial category, they may qualify for a Financial Oversight Panel to help manage future cuts without compromising a quality education.

The Decatur School District has dipped to the second lowest category.

In the last few years, Decatur schools have more than $6 million in state aid. To balance its budget, the Decatur School District is getting rid of block scheduling at the middle and high schools, and cutting 77 positions in a district serving more than 9,000 students.

“It was based upon the premise of trying to stay away from the classroom, but the reality is that’s where most of our funds are spent,” said Todd Covault, who is the business director for the Decatur School District. “So, it’s very, very difficult to cut narrowly 10 percent out of your budget and not affect what’s taking place in the classroom.”

Covault said the cuts were made without a clear picture of what the state funding will be in the immediate future.

“Illinois requires that you provide notice, I believe it’s 45 days before the end of the school term,”Covault said. “We have to make the reductions now, even though we really don’t have a complete understanding of how the finances are going to be for us next year, and probably won’t know until school starts in the fall.”

Unless the state finds a solution to its problems, Illinois schools will likely face more challenges, complicated by the looming effects of the federal sequester and drops in revenue from local property taxes.

That begs the question if the education funding formula in the state should change.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch said at the very least, it should be reviewed to determine if there are better ways to ensure that the money follows the student.

Categories: Education, Government, Politics