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East St. Louis among biggest losers with latest money roadblock

By AP/KWMU/IL Public Radio

Springfield, Ill. –

See the school construction priority list

School officials complained Tuesday that Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a man known for finding ways to bend the rules, is doing nothing to cut red tape blocking money to repair crumbling old school buildings. A new law entitles 24 districts - including three in the Metro-East - to share $150 million in construction funds. But Blagojevich says the law didn't take effect until after a paperwork deadline, so he can't deliver the money.

The East St. Louis School District stands to receive $29 million, second only to the Chicago School District. Bethalto Unit District 8 is up for $4.3 million, while Central School District 104 is up for $416,000.

Ruth Schneider isn't buying the governor's line. She's the superintendent of Stewardson-Strasburg District, in east-central Illinois and says Blagojevich could release the money if he wanted to.

Schneider noted he has made similar decisions before, including his recent promise to spend money on health programs that lawmakers didn't approve.

"I am pleading with the governor for the children of my community: Please release this money," Schneider said at a news conference with other superintendents and Republican legislators. "We are in dire need."

The school districts were first promised the money five years ago, after state officials reviewed the construction needs of all districts and ranked them according to need.

The governor and Legislature finally came up with the money this year, approving it along with raises for state officials.

The Blagojevich administration says that before it can hand out the money, schools must sign formal agreements spelling out the details of their projects. Those agreements had to be in place before the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

Blagojevich didn't sign the measure into law until Aug. 13. His office says lawmakers sent him the legislation so late just two weeks before the deadline that there wasn't time to finish the agreements even if he had signed it immediately.

"We share the frustration of these school districts. Lawmakers shouldn't have gotten their hopes up if they weren't going to deliver," said Justin DeJong, a spokesman for the governor's budget office.

"It's just not possible to do in two weeks what takes two months under normal circumstances."

The Democratic governor isn't always a stickler for procedure, though. He has twice spent money on stem cell research without legislative approval. Last year, he started sending emergency repair money to Carterville High School even though it isn't on the priority list. And just last week, he announced he would expand health programs that lawmakers had refused to fund.

Diane Cody, superintendent of Winfield School District 34 in the Chicago suburbs, said it's frustrating to watch the governor take action for other groups but not schools that have been waiting for years.

"Old promises need to be fulfilled before new programs begin," Cody said, noting that her district went ahead with improvements based on assurances the state money would arrive. Now the district faces a $2.3 million debt.

Blagojevich says the answer is for legislators to approve a new construction bill restoring the school money. That bill has been caught up in the dispute that has left Illinois without a budget for three weeks.

In a letter Tuesday, the governor also noted that many of the Republican lawmakers pressing for release of the school money actually voted against the legislation authorizing it. The legislators respond that they opposed other parts of the legislation, such as the state pay raises.

School Construction Priority List
Districts up for money, listed in order of priority
(district, county, amount)

Rochester CUSD 3A, Sangamon, $10.2 million
Fairfield Public SD 112, Wayne, $3.9 million
Stewardson-Strasburg CUSD 5A, Shelby, $2 million
Winfield SD 34, DuPage, $2.3 million
East St. Louis SD 189, St. Clair, $29 million
Silvis SD 34, Rock Island, $11.9 million
Joliet Public SD 86, Will, $26.7 million
Community Consolidated SD 93, DuPage, $1.6 million
Hinckley Big Rock CUSD 429, Dekalb, $1.9 million
West Northfield SD 31, Cook, $1.8 million
Du Quoin CUSD 300, Perry, $10.3 million
Benton CCSD 47, Franklin, $2.5 million
Villa Park SD 45, DuPage, $981,000
Westchester SD 92-5, Cook, $26,000
Big Hollow SD 38, Lake, $252,000
Matteson Elem SD 162, Cook, $1.1 million
Central SD 104, St. Clair, $416,000
Northbrook Elem SD 27, Cook, $1.5 million
Manteno CUSD 5, Kankakee, $2.2 million
Bradley SD 61, Kankakee, $2.1 million
Bethalto CUSD 8, Madison, $4.3 million
Westmont CUSD 201, DuPage, $1.2 million
Chicago Public Schools, $29.7 million