Thursday, Jan. 23

 

School administrators brainstorm with Mitchell in the face of state budget cuts

[JAN. 23, 2003]  Public schools in Illinois are facing a funding crisis.

That much state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsythe, and the nearly 40 area school officials and board members who met with him Wednesday morning agreed on. What to do about it, however, is still a matter of debate.

Mitchell called the meeting at Clintonís Warner Public Library to hear from the school officials in his new 87th District. Since the redistricting last year, Mitchell represents some school districts new to him, he said.

Administrators and board members from about 25 school districts attended, including Lincoln Community High School, Chester-East Lincoln, Olympia, Hartsburg-Emden, and Mount Pulaski.

Mitchell said the problem is acute in rural school districts because of declining enrollments and no increase, or possibly a decrease, in real estate valuations. Nearly 60 percent of Illinoisí 900 school districts are possibly in deficit, which is an intolerable situation, he said.

A show of hands indicated that the majority of the school districts represented at the forum were in a deficit position now or expected to be within the next one or two years. This group includes Olympia, the biggest district represented, and Chester-East Lincoln, one of the smallest. Both districts are asking voters to approve tax levy increases at the April 1 general election. Chester-East Lincoln is asking for a 50-cent increase in the education fund, and Olympia is asking for an increase of $1.20 in the education fund.

Mitchell asked the officials to tell him what they thought the problems were and what should be done. The major problem, they said, is not enough money, but running a close second is the way the state supports, or fails to support, public education.

Fred Plese, superintendent at LCHS, said three separate studies have shown that there just isnít enough money allocated by the state to support education. "Every time we suggest funding changes, itís ignored," he said.

 

Plese and many other administrators from rural schools believe the state formula for funding education has to change. The Educational Funding Advisory Board, a body appointed by Gov. George Ryan, is recommending that sales or income taxes be used to help fund schools so they do not have to rely so heavily on property taxes.

This position isnít popular with urban and suburban school districts, those "north of I-80," which have a much bigger property tax base to support their schools than rural districts do, Plese said.

Several other administrators told Mitchell they were standing behind the EFAB recommendation to change the funding formula. Mitchell said he was still not sure he agreed with the entire EFAB program.

Another comment Plese made also drew general support: "If the state is not going to give us money to run the schools, it should stop attaching strings to the money schools do have."

For example, the mandate that elementary schools must provide physical education every single day is hampering the ability of schools to make the best use of their funding, one administrator said. Illinois is the only state that demands daily PE in elementary schools, he added.

Another administrator pointed out that school districts get funds for very specific uses, such as staff development and mentoring new teachers, which they cannot use for any other purpose. But what the school districts really need is money to keep teachers in the classroom. "We are cutting teachers; we will run out of people to develop, and we have no new teachers to mentor," he said.

A Taylorville representative said her district is cutting teachers but can get construction money, which also cannot be used to pay teachers.

 

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A common complaint is that the state does not keep its promises to fully fund school districts. If the state runs low on money, it cuts aid to schools at the end of the fiscal year. This year, as usual, administrators fear state aid payments will be delayed, cut back or even dropped out altogether.

One administrator has been keeping score. Only four times in the last 17 years has the state fully paid its promised reimbursements, he charged. For example, some years school districts may get only 80 percent of the money promised for special education or 90 percent promised for special education.

"Why doesnít the state honor its obligation to us?" he asked.

Robert Bagby, new superintendent of Chester-East Lincoln, said that his district, which has had to make drastic cuts, will be hurt even more if the state prorates reimbursement again this year.

"We were told we would receive this amount of money, so build your budget on it. We built a budget based on the amount we were told we would be given, then we donít get it," he said.

"We need stability from the state. We need to know what we are going to get and then donít cut back on it. If itís only $25, weíll make do, but then donít come back and tell us itís going to be $10," he said.

A Decatur school official said the new No Child Left Behind law passed by President George W. Bush, and the way Illinois is administering it, is having a huge negative impact on Decatur schools. The new law says schools where a certain percent of students are not meeting state academic standards must give students a choice to transfer to other schools. If schools continue to fail to meet standards, they will continue to be penalized.

One Decatur school, with a 67 percent poverty rate, had to offer school choice, the administrator said. After students who opted out were transferred, the school had a 98 percent poverty rate. Also, the school had to set aside funds for transportation of the children who opted out and then had to lay off teachers.

"This is putting money into things that have much less impact on helping children achieve," she said. She also said the constantly rising expectations for children to meet state standards are unrealistic and the state should "plateau" some of those standards.

A board member from Mount Pulaski summed up the general feeling about school legislation when he said, "There has to be some common sense applied. The legislature has lost the ability to sit down and think things through before making rules. Use common sense and take some of the strings off."

 

Mitchell asked administrators and board members to send him a list of what they believe are the "strings" that should be removed. He also said he did not know whether the new governor would be tackling the problem of school funding this year, as the state has a burgeoning state deficit and many other problems to deal with.

Although no definite conclusions were reached, area administrators believed the meeting was productive. Several said they were happy to have the opportunity to meet Rep. Mitchell, to "put a face with the name."

Dean Langdon, assistant business administrator at LCHS, said that the crisis in school funding has already hit some schools, such as Chester-East Lincoln this year, but others wonít be far behind. "Chester-East Lincoln is on the front line. But this is going to be a domino effect, filtering through every district in the state eventually. Itís only a matter of time if we donít change the formula for funding schools.

"I hope Rep. Mitchell takes our concerns and turns them into legislative action."

[Joan Crabb]


Newcomer packets distributed
through real estate agencies

[JAN. 23, 2003]  Packets containing information for newcomers are available through local real estate offices, courtesy of St. John United Church of Christ in Lincoln.

Committee chair Brenda Short, who delivered the packets to all local Realtors, said the purpose is to let people who are new to the community know what services are available. Her employer, Diane Schriber of Diane Schriber Realty, said, "I think it's good information for anyone new to the area to have." This information is not available in any single location, she noted, and the packets save running around trying to find it.

A number of organizations and businesses have supplied information for the packets. For starters, there are four publications from the Lincoln/Logan County Chamber of Commerce -- city and county maps, a 40-page color introduction to the county, and a postcard depicting Abraham Lincoln with the chamber's watermelon car. From the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County come brochures listing historic sites and a calendar of events. Main Street Lincoln has supplied its brochure detailing a walking tour of historic sites. Completing the tourism-related information is a description of Postville Courthouse from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

 

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County Clerk and Recorder Sally Litterly has added a listing of city and county elected officials. Additional brochures include disaster guides from the American Red Cross, subscription information for the Lincolnland Community Concert season and an introduction to Heartland Community College. Information from local businesses and organizations completes the packets. There are even some small freebies -- an FS pencil, a pen from Blue Dog Inn and a 20 percent off coupon from The Treasure Chest.

Anyone interested in receiving a newcomer packet can contact a local real estate agency or call the St. John United Church of Christ office at 732-6957. Those who have items for inclusion can call Elsie Menzel at 732-3201.

[News release]


Articles from the past week

Wednesday:

  • City seeks ways to fund infrastructure upgrades

  • County puts economic development tax on April ballot

  • Big news for Logan County economy
    New economic development director and government liaison announced

  • Public forum tonight on sales tax increase
    (Community)

Tuesday:

  • City and county each exceed $5 million in 2002 construction

  • MLK: More than a day off

Monday:

  • Volunteers fill void after courthouse site director retires

  • Rep. Mitchell backs proposal to reform executive clemency procedures

  • Reminder: Martin Luther King Jr. Day activity planned  (Community)

Saturday:

  • Check is here for Lincoln Well

  • Blagojevich names new agency directors, continues push for reform, streamlining government

  • Bomke tapped as transportation spokesman

Friday:

  • Economic development tax seems headed for ballot

  • Sesquicentennial schedule and funding begin to firm up

  • Mitchell announces satellite office hours

Thursday:

  • High price of steel ups school buildings' costs
    Officials scrambling for solutions

  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day activity planned
    (
    Community)

  • Snow to diminish over central Illinois this afternoon

  • Term appointments come undone under new governor

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