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Metro East schools sue Illinois over inadequate funding

Flickr | alkruse24

Hours after measures to increase the sales tax for schools failedin both Madison and St. Clair counties, two school districts from each county sued the state.

Bethalto, Cahokia, Grant and Wood River-Hartford schools joined more than a dozen other southern Illinois districts in the suit. They want the state to provide enough funding so districts can meet the state's new learning standards.

“We have no problem being held accountable, but at the same time, if we’re going to be held accountable by these learning standards we also want the playing field to be level,” said Patrick Anderson, superintendent of Wood River-Hartford, a small Madison County school district of about 750 students.

The lawsuit filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court claims the state is violating its constitution by inadequately funding public schools. The plaintiffs argue the state has set more rigorous learning standards without providing enough financial support for all districts to meet those standards.

“If you were building the house out of wood and suddenly you wanted to make the house out of brick, you have to expect that it’s going to cost you more money,"  said Art Ryan, superintendent of the Cahokia district. "And that’s kind of where we are now. By increasing the standards and making them more firm and more solid, which is a good idea, you’re going to have to help pay for that.”

Ryan said Cahokia schools have had to cut 80 teaching positions and increase class sizes to 30 students, even in kindergarten.

“We’re out of options,” Ryan said.

Grant Superintendent Matt Stines said small school districts with low property values have had an especially hard time. Grant has less than 700 students.

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Illinois Education Secretary Beth Purvis said Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has recommended changing the school funding formula to make it more equitable to cash-strapped districts.

"Illinois school districts are receiving the highest level of funding ever under Governor Rauner, who has increased school funding by $700 million since taking office,” Purvis said.

Anderson said that while the state has increased funding, it is almost a year behind in paying for transportation and special education programs.

State legislators have filed several bills to change Illinois’s school funding formula. So far none have made it to the governor’s desk.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.