School districts suffer while state funds lag, but severity may vary

  • U-46 sixth-grade teacher Steve Olofson holds a sign showing how many teachers were laid off from his Elgin-based district as he listens to Gov. Quinn speak in Rosemont on Friday.

      U-46 sixth-grade teacher Steve Olofson holds a sign showing how many teachers were laid off from his Elgin-based district as he listens to Gov. Quinn speak in Rosemont on Friday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

With varying levels of student poverty, property taxes rates and local revenues, no two suburban school districts are funded exactly the same way.

Years ago, complicated formulas were created in the attempt to equalize resources in rich and poor districts across the state.

Those that take in less local revenue, are, in theory, supposed to get more help.

These days, that's not happening.

Illinois, faced with a $13 billion deficit, is failing to deliver aid to government agencies across the state, including schools.

As of Wednesday, state comptroller spokesman Alan Henry said, it was behind $782 million in payments to K-12 school districts.

Next year, the outlook is even worse.

According to State Superintendent Christopher Koch, at least 13,000 teachers and others will be laid off from their jobs in schools across the state. If education funding from the state is cut, he said, that figure could grow to 30,000.

With a spike in foreclosures and a 0.1 percent inflation rate, you won't find a district that hasn't been affected by the economic downturn in some way. But the neediest districts, the ones most dependent on the cash-strapped state, are hurting the most.

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"It's not unlike everything that's happening in the state. I just met with some large urban district superintendents for a regional meeting last week, and I think all of us are talking about 10, 15, 18 percent reductions to our budgets," Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres said in a recent sit-down interview. "It hurts some school districts less depending on how (they're funded)."

District U-46

Elgin Area School District U-46, a 41,000-student school district second in size only to Chicago Public Schools, announced March 15 that nearly 1,100 employees would be laid off, about a quarter of the district's employees.

For U-46, the picture keeps getting worse.

After emerging from 2003's $40.3 million budget hole, the district spent several years in the black.

But 15 months ago, several rounds of cuts began again.

Seeing both a lag in state aid and a spike in foreclosures, U-46 in December 2008 announced plans to cut back on spending by $2.7 million. Then in March 2009, 348 positions were eliminated. The district finished the fiscal year with a $28.9 million shortfall.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

According to its recently amended 2010 budget, U-46 is supposed to receive 32 percent - roughly $148 million - of its funding from the state. Right now, it is missing $12.2 million in expected funds, Henry said.

With $15 million in various lagging revenues, and an expected $29 million reduction in state funding if Gov. Pat Quinn's 33 percent tax increase fails, U-46 Chief Financial Officer Ron Ally has put the district's deficit at least $44 million next year.

"Certainly cuts to state aid and the categorical and grant funding might impact us greatly," Torres said. Many of U-46's 53 schools are using their campus signs to urge the state to "Fix School Funding."

The district has made $29.6 million in cuts so far, with the potential for more on the bargaining table.

Along with layoffs, class sizes may shoot up to as many as 33 students per teacher next year in some grades. The opportunity for high school students to take extra electives has been eliminated. Kindergarten art, music and physical education have been cut entirely.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"School districts across the state are taking a step back," an emotional board President Ken Kaczynski told an auditorium filled with parents and teachers last week. "Next next year our school district won't look like it did today."

District 204

In Aurora and Naperville, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 is facing a $21.4 million deficit.

With 13.4 percent of revenues coming from the state, the 29-school district is dependent on state revenue, but at less than half the level of U-46. The district had, in December, announced $9.2 million in budget cuts. This month, it announced it must make $12 million more.

In a March 11 letter to parents, Superintendent Kathy Birkett announced that state funding uncertainties may force the district to eliminate as many as 145 teaching and 19 administrative positions, as well as increase registration fees, put off building and technology projects, freeze administrator pay and increase class sizes, among other things. The proposed cuts go before the school board today.

"We have had worse class sizes in the district and we believe that class size is an easy thing for us to bring back depending on where the state lands (in terms of funding)," Birkett said. "But we feel we are well positioned now to deal with whatever the state brings us and we hope it all plays out to be much better."

Districts 211 and 95

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Lake Zurich District 95 have it a little easier.

The state funds only 6.6 percent of District 211's $228.7 million budget, with a current backlog of $2.38 million.

Associate Superintendent for Business David Torres told the Daily Herald March 4 his staff is preparing a contingency plan, with cuts to line items, capital outlay and purchased services, but he doesn't project layoffs for the district this coming year.

All spending will be re-evaluated once the raw numbers from the state actually arrive, he said.

Lake Zurich District 95 made $2.6 million in cuts last year, and actions taken then appear to have saved the district from making more major reductions in the near future. Reductions included laying off 29 teachers and reducing spending on energy, operations and bulk buying.

The 6,300-student district gets roughly 9.5 percent of its budget from the state.

No deficit is expected in the upcoming 2010-11, but officials are cautious about spending because state funding has been behind in payments.

"I guess comparatively we're doing better than others," Superintendent Mike Egan said. District 95 is owed $1.9 million from the state, and officials expect state funding to be reduced next year.

But the district is helped by the fact that at the moment, it's still receiving a majority of property tax collections. With 3.6 percent of Lake County's homes in foreclosure in 2009, that district could start receiving less in the near future, Egan expects.

"We're not out of the woods yet by any means," he said.

• Staff writers Justin Kmitch and Ashok Selvam contributed to this report.

 

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