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updated: 7/8/2011 6:49 AM

Veto raises questions as new school year nears

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, -- Gov. Pat Quinn has taken away the salaries of Illinois' regional education superintendents but not their many duties, creating confusion about who will do the work as schools plan for the coming academic year.

The tasks now surrounded by question marks include inspecting schools to make sure they're safe, checking the backgrounds of school employees, training bus drivers and offering GED programs for students who have left school. All those jobs are supervised by regional superintendents.

School officials want to know whether the work will get done so they can open their doors next month.

"Who's going to do that if they don't?" Michael Chamness, spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Administrators, asked Wednesday. "For the amount of money that is allegedly being saved, those are an awful lot of very important duties."

David Vaught, the governor's budget director, said the impact on schools is a concern. His office said Wednesday it would look into the issue and provide more detail. On Thursday, the office released a statement saying it looks forward to working with legislators in October and will talk to superintendents about temporary sources of money.

Quinn announced last week that he was cutting $9.1 million that would have provided salaries for the regional superintendents and their assistants, along with $2.2 million from their operations budget. The Democratic governor had suggested the same cut in March when he presented his budget proposal, but lawmakers rejected the idea.

His decision to eliminate the money by veto came as a surprise. Regional superintendents said they learned about it from reading the news last Thursday. The next day they were sworn in for new four-year terms and, for now at least, are working without pay.

Quinn and his aides have said little about how regional offices of education should operate if the 44 superintendents aren't being paid. His veto did not come with any proposal to transfer duties to some other agency, suspend the offices' work or arrange for another source of money to pay the superintendents.

Quinn has said the superintendents, who are elected officials, should get their money from local taxpayers, not the state. In fact, Quinn said he believes they already may get stipends from local governments, which the superintendents say is not true.

One funding possibility raised by Quinn's office is taking the money from a tax paid by businesses to local government, the personal property replacement tax. Whatever the ultimate source of the money, it won't be decided until October, at the earliest, when lawmakers return to Springfield.

"We need to have that debate with the Legislature. We'll have that in the fall," Quinn said this week.

Vaught said the superintendents and their assistants may have to go without pay from July through October. He noted they're not alone in waiting for the state, which faces a gaping deficit, to pay what it owes.

"We have a lot of people who aren't getting paid for six months," Vaught said.

"Unacceptable," responded Gil Morrison, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. "We're people, too, and we have families and bills and mortgages that have to be paid."

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, head of the Senate Education Committee, said regional superintendents provide valuable services and shouldn't be expected to work for free. "I think anybody who works deserves to be paid," the Chicago Democrat said.

Illinois has regional education offices across the state, some covering single counties and some several counties. Critics often cite the offices as an unnecessary layer of government, one devoted to bureaucracy and paper-shuffling rather than educating children. The Illinois auditor general frequently questions whether their accounting practices scrupulously track the offices' money.

Quinn argues the state should focus its limited money on the classroom instead of paying administrative costs that could be picked up by local taxpayers, although his critics say that would just divert local money away from the classroom. He's not the first governor to go after the regional superintendents. Nearly a decade ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to eliminate them but saw his proposal sink in the General Assembly.

Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, the Education Committee's top Republican, criticized Quinn for cutting the superintendents' salaries and budget without settling how their work will be done.

"It's just so poorly thought-out by the governor," said Luechtefeld, of Okawville. "Who is now supposed to do the things the regional superintendents do? And they do a lot of stuff."

They certify that school buildings meet state health and safety codes. They decide whether proposed calendars for each school's academic year are acceptable. They offer GED courses for students who want diplomas despite leaving high school and alternative education for students removed from school for being disruptive.

Regional education offices provide training for teachers and issue the certificates teachers must have before they can take over a classroom. They also conduct training for bus drivers, issue legal interpretations of education law and even issue work permits so teenagers can get part-time jobs. The superintendents also say they bring in major grant money -- over $130 million statewide.

The State Board of Education and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka say they won't pay the superintendents now that Quinn has cut the money, but the superintendents maintain state law requires that they be paid, no matter what.

A lawsuit seems likely.

"I don't intend to volunteer all year," said Morrison, president of the regional superintendents. "It's my opinion they're breaking the law."