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Illinois schools react to state budget crisis with layoffs, program cuts and dismay

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 28, 2010 - The Piasa bird is pretty fierce, but this year it has met its match -- the Illinois school budget monster from Springfield.

As the Legislature wrestles to tame a spending plan that has Illinois laying out $13 billion more than it is taking in, school districts are trying to cope with big budget holes where state payments should be. Layoff notices are increasingly common, and programs that aren't mandated by the state, including sports, art, music and special education, are being trimmed back or cut altogether.

For the Piasa Southwestern schools, northeast of St. Louis, that means increased fees for students -- $120 for kindergarten through 8th grade, $160 for high school, $150 for sports in high school and middle school, $50 for band, $150 for Future Farmers of America. Superintendent Larry Elsea said the fees are unfortunate but unavoidable.

As of Tuesday morning, the state owed the district $855,576.37. It has tried to cope with the shortfall by cutting $2.4 million out of its $12 million budget, shedding 20 teachers and 50 support personnel. No local property tax increase is on the horizon, and Elsea said the school board doesn't want to borrow.

So far, he said, the fees have generated no public reaction, one way or the other.

"I think people heard what Illinois legislators have been saying for the past two months," he said. "They told the school districts to do it themselves because they are not going to do anything for us. The philosophy that Illinois legislators have adopted is that you want it, you pay for it, because we're not paying for it anymore."


It was legendary Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen who famously said of government spending, "A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

In Springfield this year, the figures that most affect Illinois schools have been $13 billion, the size of the state's budget deficit, and $1.3 billion, the financial drain on education in terms of payments owed but not paid.

Various solutions have been floated to try to close the gap. Gov. Pat Quinn, facing an election campaign against a GOP opponent who favors no tax increases at all, wants the state income tax to increase to 4 percent from its present 3 percent. A bill in the Legislature would go even further, raising the income tax to 5 percent plus expanding other taxes.

But with antitax rhetoric common and lawmakers working toward a planned adjournment of May 7, no fiscal remedy can be taken for granted.

Meanwhile, with 80 percent of their budgets typically going for personnel, school districts had to let teachers know by the last week of March whether they would have a job next year. Given the budget uncertainty, many of them voted to slash their staffs. An estimate by six school-related groups, representing teachers to administrators to school boards, pegs the number of jobs that will be lost at as high as 20,000, including teachers and non-teaching personnel.

Such moves were enough to send thousands of teachers and other public employees to Springfield last week to voice the unusual rallying cry, "Raise our taxes!"

But with no new money in sight, the list of layoffs has grown, with districts from Alton to Belleville, Bethalto to Roxana and beyond dropping personnel to make sure their budgets balance.

The language that school officials use to describe the effects borders on apocalyptic.

"Everybody is trying to do more with less," says Brad Harriman, regional school superintendent for St. Clair County. "You just keep hanging on, going day by day, week by week."

"The concern that I've heard voiced by many superintendents is that next year is going to be even worse," adds Andrew Reinking, assistant regional superintendent in Madison County. "This crisis is not going to abate."

And Charlie McBarron, spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, put it this way:

"It's a disaster looming here, unless the state does something about revenue. This is going to be a crisis that will become a tragedy."

Calling the Legislature's plan to call it quits on May 7 "unconscionable," he added:

"They need to take care of business. Going on vacation without taking care of education would be a huge mistake and slap in the face of children and families statewide."


Those families and children are already starting to feel the effects -- and starting to do something about it.

In the Carlinville schools, in Macoupin County, it means the revival of Cavpac, a citizens group dedicated to retaining and reviving extracurricular activities.

To save money so far, Superintendent Mike Kelly says, Carlinville schools have cut assistant coaching positions and made ticket takers and table officials at sporting events volunteer positions. As far as what the players wear during games, "the district has not purchased a uniform in seven years. That's the responsibility of the boosters."

Those booster groups first came together as Cavpac several years ago, during an earlier budget crisis. Jerry Eiffert, general manager of the Carlinville division of Prairie Farms dairy and a leader of the effort, said raffles, concession stands and other activities raised $250,000 the first year, $150,000 the second and $75,000 or more the third.

Now, he says, it's time to revive the group to raise $50,000, primarily for junior high activities -- not just sports but things like debate, music and the math team -- that may not be able to survive without the private help.

Eiffert, who has no children in the schools but served for 16 years on the school board in Mt. Zion before moving to Carlinville, said that in the current economic climate, fund-raising may not be so easy this time around, but the need is great.

"The children in any state are our most important commodity," Eiffert said, "and the state is not taking care of them. I'm not a person who throws money at schools. I don't believe in that at all. I think schools need to be accountable, but not supporting them the way they should is a shame."

Kelly, the superintendent, said Carlinville as a district has been in worse shape financially in the past, but in his 25 years in the district he has never seen things so bad in terms of state support.

"We have been positioning ourselves as best we could to survive this," he said. "But we can only survive so long."

The mixture of resignation and sadness in his voice was hardly unique. For Elsea, who is retiring as superintendent in the Piasa district at the end of the school year, it's a sad end to a career.

"When I look at the last six years, we built it from being a good school district to being a great school district," he said. "Now, in three short months, we have to tear it all apart. I should have retired last year instead of this year."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.