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posted: 5/16/2010 12:01 AM

The state's priorities confusing

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Some good news for a handful of suburban school districts probably left most of us scratching our heads last week.

State education leaders made 24 Illinois school superintendents very happy when they announced the state would finally make good on its 2002 promises of $149 million in grants.

That meant Carol Stream Elementary District 93 would finally get the $1.6 million needed to convert the old administration building into early childhood classrooms. Except, the project was long ago scrapped.

It also meant Winfield Elementary District 34 finally will get the $2.3 million to renovate the old middle school. Except, that project is finished and financed with help from taxpayers who approved a tax increase referendum.

These are just two examples that illustrate the surprising choice to hand out grants for projects proposed nearly a decade ago, when George Ryan was governor. Rod Blagojevich kept promising to deliver the money, but never did. Now Gov. Pat Quinn is keeping the 8-year-old promise made two governors ago. It's admirable Quinn wants to deliver the money after all this time. We've called on him before to make good on other promised grants, in fact.

But many districts have moved on. They have found other funding or scrapped their plans. Meanwhile, the state's finances are in a tailspin.

The situation is so bad that lawmakers fled Springfield without passing a budget and without plans to return and finish the job.

As worthy as the original proposals were, it just doesn't make sense to fund abandoned projects when the state's late payments are forcing schools to lay off teachers, cut programs and increase class sizes. Yes, a promise is a promise, but the state has many more urgent broken promises to keep.

Illinoisans have got to wonder why, after eight years, this $149 million became a priority amid a terrible funding crisis that has left the state $13 billion short. This news fuels skepticism about the true nature of the state's financial crisis and the competency of those in charge.

We don't blame superintendents like Janice M. Rosales in Villa Park Elementary District 45, where leaders wrote the $980,000 into next year's operating budget. Particularly in light of the state's late payments, this windfall comes at the right time.

District 34 Superintendent Gwynne Kell isn't using the $2.3 million for operations, though. There are plenty of capital projects that need money beyond the $9 million approved by voters in 2002 and the $1.7 million tax increase OK'd to make up for the state's failure to pay, she says.

We don't doubt that.

However, taxpayers had to reach deeper in their pockets to pay for schools when the state failed to cough up its share. So, now that the state's contribution finally appears to be coming through, maybe the better choice is giving it back to the taxpayers.

That might even restore a few people's faith that government can do the right thing.

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