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More than 400 Illinois superintendents want Gov. Rauner, legislature to pass budget

Collinsville pitcher Ryan Siverly tries to apply a tag on O'Fallon's Jacob Dryer in a high school baseball game Tuesday, April 25, 2017 in Collinsville, Illinois. Players at both schools have to pay a fee to play sports.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Collinsville pitcher Ryan Siverly tries to apply a tag on O'Fallon's Jacob Dryer in a high school baseball game Tuesday in Collinsville. Players at both schools have to pay a fee to play sports.

Several Metro East school superintendents are among the 413 public school leaders who are calling on Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-majority legislature to pass a budget after nearly two years of disagreements, and fully fund public education.

The superintendents, who are part of the “Pass Illinois’ Budget” campaign, said they have more than $13 billion in unpaid bills combined, because the state hasn’t given them what they’ve been promised. The long-running budget impasse, which looks no closer to being resolved, has left districts in “dire straits,” according to Granite City’s superintendent, Jim Greenwald.

Their push comes just a few weeks after more than a dozen school systems sued the state of Illinois for not being given enough money, arguing it’s a violation of state law.

Collinsville School District Superintendent Bob Green said his schools are receiving $2 million less than they should this year. And if the budget stalemate tips into a third year, he said he may have to shorten the school year to save money.

“I know not starting school until, say October or ending early in March is kind of drastic,” he said, “but we’re getting painted into a corner that there’s not going to be a lot of options.”

But that move could cause the district to lose even more state funding. Schools are required to be in session 176 days, and the Illinois Board of Education can penalize districts for each day a year is shortened below that.

In Granite City, Greenwald isn’t filling teacher and staff positions and is putting off building upgrades.

“You can’t continue just putting your finger in the dike, so to speak, to keep the flooding from taking place. We really, really eventually are going to need regular monies coming in without proration,” Greenwald said.

He was referring to how school funding is working during the impasse. Currently, Illinois schools are getting a prorated amount of money — 89 percent of what it should be. The funding formula has been criticized for giving more money to larger, wealthier districts than impoverished ones, but with no spending plan, there’s less for the state to give out, meaning all districts are receiving less.

No end in sight

State Sen. Bill Haine, a Democrat who represents the Collinsville area, criticized Rauner for focusing on issues other than education funding, saying depriving schools of the money they’re due is crippling one of the state’s best public assets.

“We need a groundswell of public opinion focusing on this as the issue, not political issues,” he said in applauding the efforts from superintendents.

State Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said the governor has suggested how to make school funding more equitable.

“The governor urges the General Assembly to pass a balanced budget with reforms so that our educational system, from cradle-to-career, will receive the necessary resources to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of Illinois children,” she said in a statement to St. Louis Public Radio.

Aside from the lawsuit and the superintendents’ push, voters in Madison County (which includes  Collinsville and Granite City) and St. Clair County were asked to raise sales taxes by 1 percent for schools, but both measures were defeated.

And until the state’s funding situation is settled, students will have to share in some of the financial burden.

Take Collinsville's and O’Fallon’s sports teams, for example. Both schools have fees for athletes, but those have risen as money gets tighter. No longer can kids just show up and play sports, Green said.

“Now it’s a different time, a different age, and different funding,” he added.

Collinsville’s sports fees will increase from $75 to $100 per sport next year, Green said, and fees for art classes and driver’s ed have also gone up, Green said.Collinsville High School pitcher Ryan Siverly is welcomed into the dugout during the Kahoks' baseball game against O'Fallon on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.