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updated: 10/17/2011 6:42 AM

Suburban schools' dilemma: Mandates vs. quality

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  • BRIAN HILL/bhill@dailyherald.com  Fix school funding sign at Elgin High School.

      BRIAN HILL/bhill@dailyherald.com Fix school funding sign at Elgin High School.

  • CHRISTOPHER HANKINS/chankins@dailyherald.com  Debbie Pangilinan and her daughter Angel, a third grader at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett, show their support for education funding rally at South Elgin High School.

      CHRISTOPHER HANKINS/chankins@dailyherald.com Debbie Pangilinan and her daughter Angel, a third grader at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett, show their support for education funding rally at South Elgin High School.

  • Bill Zars/bzars@dailyherald.comTeacher Amy Freiberg has more than 30 students in her classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, part of Elgin Area School District U-46, which is struggling to compensate for overdue payments owed by the state.

      Bill Zars/bzars@dailyherald.comTeacher Amy Freiberg has more than 30 students in her classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, part of Elgin Area School District U-46, which is struggling to compensate for overdue payments owed by the state.

  • Anwol Bawja of Metea Valley High School in Aurora says technology cuts are hurting students who dream of attending top-echelon colleges.

       Anwol Bawja of Metea Valley High School in Aurora says technology cuts are hurting students who dream of attending top-echelon colleges.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • Students file out of one of four mobile classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates. Class sizes have grown as high as 33 students at the school.

       Students file out of one of four mobile classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates. Class sizes have grown as high as 33 students at the school.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Classes have grown as large as 33 students at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, where four mobile classrooms are in use.

       Classes have grown as large as 33 students at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, where four mobile classrooms are in use.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Kindergartners arrive for afternoon classes at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, where some classes have grown as large as 33 students.

       Kindergartners arrive for afternoon classes at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates, where some classes have grown as large as 33 students.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Students vie for attention from art teacher Tom Graholski at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates. The school is part of Elgin Area School District U-46, where school officials have been forced to make up for millions of dollars owed by the state.

       Students vie for attention from art teacher Tom Graholski at Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates. The school is part of Elgin Area School District U-46, where school officials have been forced to make up for millions of dollars owed by the state.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

 
By Kerry Lester

Carol Olson of Bartlett relied on school counseling to help her daughters through a family crisis -- until their social worker's sharply increased workload made it tough to get appointments.

Aurora teen Anwol Bawja "obsessively" studies medical school entrance criteria and fears reduced funding for his high school's science, technology, engineering and research program could land him and others on their dream colleges' cut lists.

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Suburban families are used to school quality. That's why they're here, lured by achievements like the 26.2 average composite ACT at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Japanese dual-language classes for first-graders at Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 and Grammys won by Indian Prairie School District 204's music program.

Yet renowned programs like those are at risk because of a factor out of parents' and school boards' control -- the state's inability to pay bills it owes schools for services they're required by law to offer.

Consequently, suburban schools are forced to pull resources from the classroom to cover late state payments in other areas, particularly transportation.

As of last month, the state owed suburban schools $95 million, all of that more than 30 days past due.

The state is 30 days or more overdue in paying $7.3 million to Elgin Area School District U-46, the second highest in the state outside Chicago.

Indian Prairie Unit District 204 is owed $4.6 million, Community Unit District 300 is owed $4.4 million, Naperville Unit District 203 is owed $3.6 million and Schaumburg Township District 54 is owed $3.2 million.

All-purpose state aid to schools is being paid on time, the state board of education said. The money being delayed is for special education, technical classes, reimbursement for free meals for poor children and transportation.

Because those programs are the source of most of the state money suburban schools receive, Illinois' late payments hits suburban schools hard.

Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican and downstate superintendent, argues that because suburban and downstate districts do more busing than Chicago Public Schools, they're disproportionately affected by the state's choice of which bills to leave unpaid.

Transportation funds not only are late, but they have been cut dramatically in the state's latest budget.

"It's blatant unfair action," Eddy said.

In recent years, suburban school leaders have gotten used to struggling to keep above water.

Local property taxes -- the leading source of revenue for most suburban schools -- are curtailed by caps tied to inflation. Home foreclosures and business bankruptcies have cut into taxable property values.

Schools responded with cuts -- closing early childhood centers, increasing class sizes and pink-slipping teachers and aides by the hundreds.

Now, school officials say, the state's unpaid bills make it difficult to move forward.

Elgin U-46 ended the fiscal year in June $18.7 million short in transportation funding from the state -- which the district was forced to plug with money from its educational fund.

Determined to staunch the transportation funding drain, the school district eliminated neighborhood bus routes for high schoolers, making some teens walk a mile or more to catch a bus to school. Bus routes for special needs students were lengthened and the time a bus will wait for a student was shortened from three minutes to one.

"It's a question of how we can reduce our transportation," District Chief of Staff Tony Sanders said of the change, which provoked an outcry from parents. "Our district has fought a deficit for the last few years. And (right now) the biggest deficit is in the transportation fund."

Over the past two years, the district has waited as long as 18 months for payments from the state. This year, it is expecting to only receive three of the four promised quarterly payments.

The district's Lincoln Elementary School in Hoffman Estates deals with classes as big as 33 students, in rooms with one teacher and no aides, Principal Mariann Alyea says.

That compares to a recent U.S. Department of Education estimate that the average class size nationwide is 25.

Like in U-46, Mike Nektriz, superintendent of Antioch High School District 117, says his district has begun to assume it won't be getting all of its transportation funding from Illinois.

The district, owed $568,000 by the state, has renegotiated its teachers contract with salary freezes, increased class sizes and consolidated bus routes to save funds.

"I don't think there's any more low-hanging fruit," he said. So the cuts get deeper.

Nature Ridge Elementary school in Bartlett is perhaps the most stable part of life for Olson's first- and third-grade daughters. Both she and her husband have been out of full-time jobs for months, bringing home a combined paycheck of $800 to $1,200 a month. Their mortgage is more than twice that.

The school's social worker is a saving grace, helping the girls mentally prepare for the fact that they might have to leave their home and their school.

But Olson said getting an appointment with the social worker has gotten harder; she now divides her time among several schools.

"It took 4 months for them to meet with her," Olson said.

The financial predicament is a tough one, as District 204 Assistant Superintendent Dave Holm told the school board at a September meeting. The Aurora-based district, which has climbed from a $21.4 million deficit in 2010 into the black, faces both flat revenues and increased costs of curriculum changes and technology upgrades.

"We need to find out what makes us stand apart from the 30,000 applicants at Brown," Metea Valley senior Bajwa told the board matter of factly. "I want to make this important for kids who are freshmen and coming into high school to start research projects in science, technology, engineering and math. This gives us an edge in college."

The school's STEM program is threatened due to lack of funding from the state.

Keeping that edge is becoming more and more challenging, said Mary Kalou, assistant superintendent of Maine Township District 207. The state owes $4.4 million, counting only payments that are 30 days or more past due, to all Maine Township schools combined.

"The state's been late for years. We have no reason to think they're going to catch up," Kalou said.

She said she spoke to a number of students working for the school's newspaper about the issue just the other day.

"I told them every year we look for areas to save money," she said. "Every year it gets harder and harder. There are not that many areas left."

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