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
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
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
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,"
"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
"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."
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
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