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updated: 3/12/2014 5:42 PM

Report: Big bump in schools' deficit spending, borrowing

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Nearly double the number of school districts in Illinois are borrowing or dipping into reserves to fund operations than five years ago, according to a state education board report released Wednesday.

Statewide, nearly 62 percent of school districts -- or 532 of them -- are deficit spending this school year compared to roughly 33 percent of districts in 2008, the report said.

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That's despite school leaders making significant cuts in staffing and academic programs. The average score of school district finances, based on fiscal year 2013 data, dropped below the highest financial ranking for the first time in five years, according to an annual Illinois State Board of Education review.

More school districts earned the lowest financial ranking in 2014 than in years past, and one-third of the state's students are being educated in schools that are in poor financial health, the board's analysis of school district financial profiles stated. The state ranks school districts in four categories: recognition, review, early warning and watch.

The number of districts listed on the "financial watch" list rose from 45 last year to 49, while districts listed under "financial early warning" grew from 67 in 2013 to 72.

Specific districts' financials were not part of the state board's news release.

The state board is seeking roughly $1 billion in additional funding from lawmakers in the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget to help improve school districts' rankings. Elementary and secondary education funding has been cut by nearly $1 billion from 2009 through 2012, while school districts grapple with shrinking resources, officials said.

"Tough choices have become par for the course for school district administrators and local boards as many have cut staff positions as well as arts and after-school programs, delayed construction projects and important repairs and are deficit-spending in order to pay the bills," state board of education Chairman Gery Chico said in a news release. "Less state funding directly contributes to these struggles and appears to correlate to the rising number of districts in the highest risk category on our annual Financial Profile.

"With continued cuts to education funding, this trend will continue. Today's lack of investment in education will be seen for many years to come in our economy and workforce."

To access the ISBE's 2014 Financial Profiles for all school districts, visit isbe.net/sfms/P/profile.htm.

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