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Illinois’ new budget is ‘not an overnight fix’ for Metro East schools

Kids sitting on the floor in a classroom
Phil Roeder | Flickr

Illinois passed a budget Thursday for the first time since 2015, and is giving more money to education than in previous spending plans.

But several years of prorated and delayed state aid have forced K-12 school districts in St. Clair and Madison counties to cut staff, increase class sizes, take on debt and deplete cash reserves. And, like the state’s finances, it’s going to take time for districts to bounce back.

“The bottom line is, is that many of our districts made drastic cuts over a year ago to reduce staff,” Madison County Regional Superintendent Bob Daiber said. (He’s also a Democratic candidate for governor.) “But there’s no guarantee, just because there’s a budget passed, that it’s going to cause cash to flow.”

Illinois schools have only received the full amount of money called for by state law three out of the last ten years. In the other seven, the state prorated general K-12 funding in an attempt to balance the budget. That adds up to millions of dollars Illinois schools will never get back.

Plus, the two-year budget impasse held up payments for transportation and special education; from last fiscal year alone, districts around the state are owed a total of $1.1 billion.

“We have districts that aren’t replacing teachers that are retiring or leaving the district. So it is a bare-bones operation in our schools now,” St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty said. She added that even when the money starts flowing again, “districts that are in deficit spending” will end up breaking even.

Belleville District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman considers Illinois schools lucky because they’ve received funding during the budget impasse. However, all schools have only received half the payments the state owes them for transportation and special education for the fiscal year that ended June 30. That adds up to $2.3 million in late payments for his district, he said.

His district has made sacrifices to keep the doors open for its about 3,900 K-8 graders. One of those was waiting until last year to replace the language arts curriculum — six years after the statewide learning standards changed. They still haven’t changed over the math curriculum for money reasons.

“We were using a curriculum that was — materials that were really good but they did not align — I mean there were gaps in the alignment with the new standards that were in place,” Klosterman said. “You end up piece-mealing, and that’s not the best situation for kids.”

Granite City high school students take part in an anti-heroin assembly in 2015.
Credit File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Granite City high school students take part in an anti-heroin assembly in 2015.

In Collinsville, Superintendent Bob Green said he’d like to hire teachers that can provide specialized support for the district’s 6,500 students. But that’s a long way off.

“We were basically down to a zero-based budget, or actually spending more than in our education fund than we were bringing in, so we got to make sure our financial house is in order,” Green said, adding that Collinsville lost $9.5 million since Illinois began prorating state aid in 2010.

Even with an almost 10 percent increase (or $717 million more) in funding for K-12 education earmarked in the new budget, which passed Thursday when Republican and Democratic lawmakers overrode GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto, the superintendents said it will be awhile before districts can afford to do more than the minimum.

Plus, it’s unclear when the money will actually show up. Funding has to be doled out with a new “evidence-based” funding formula, with lawmakers passing a bill earlier this year to direct any additional education money toward districts that that have low property values. But Rauner has promised to veto that measure because he believes it directs too much money to Chicago Public Schools.

Delayed payments were the norm during the budget crisis. Illinois accumulating nearly $15 billion in total unpaid bills. Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald said his finance director jokes about it, asking accounting every day “Did any money come in today?”

Greenwald’s district has had to cut some athletics and extracurriculars, charge athletes to be taken to games and end its drafting and graphic design vocational programs, steps he said will take awhile to reverse, if ever.

“It would not be an overnight fix,” Greenwald said. “It will be a long-term process, naturally the money that we would receive, that would be much-needed money, probably could be a lot of back payments on things.”

Follow Camille on Twitter:@cmpcamille