February is always the month that school districts in Illinois have to make fiscal decisions concerning the following school year. I will not kid you, this year’s considerations are frightening. In Illinois the state has set a foundation level where a minimum of $6,119 is to be paid for each child attending school. The state uses a formula to determine what each district receives based on its own ability to pay the foundation level for each student. Districts that have high property value can collect more taxes to pay for education and receive less state money. Illinois is 40th in state spending per pupil, $1,200 below the national average. Property poor districts (like many in downstate Illinois where we are located) are very dependent on the state aid to survive. Illinois is 11th in local spending per pupil, $1,500 above the national average. Last year the state legislature appropriated a state aid bill that pro-rated the aid at 89%. Needless to say, that left many districts scrambling for ways to make ends meet. Both of our local districts chose to deficit spend rather than cut staff or programs. This year our Governor is proposing pro-rating the foundation level amount at 80% for 2013-14. We can no longer spend reserves waiting for the state finances to get healthy. It is time to make tough decisions. The only way school districts can really save money is to downsize staff and/or reduce programs. Depending on the district, 80%-85% of expenditures is for personnel salary and benefits. You throw in utilities and other maintenance that cannot be cut, and there is very little that can be cut without affecting programs that our kids need! We will be making some tough decisions in the coming weeks. In some ways the schools in Paris are lucky. They have been managed in such a way that draconian cuts are probably a year away if nothing changes. Districts around us are not so lucky. I have listened to conversations where there is talk of eliminating nearly all electives and extracurricular programs. Abandoning music and vocational education are not out of the question. Class sizes between 30 and 40 students are a real possibility. In times like these many educators fear for their jobs, and rightly so. What we must concentrate on though is the effect on our students’ academic and social growth. They are the ones truly caught in the cross-hairs in this situation. (rant coming on!)
It does not have to be this way! We are stuck in a huge state spending crater because the state’s pension system (my pension is in there somewhere) is eating up all of the state’s revenues, leaving crumbs for schools (among other things). Now, do not get me wrong, I want my benefits when I am ready to retire, but the legislators of this state sold us down the river in their perpetual campaign to be re-elected. There is no better way to get votes than to buy them by continually sweetening the deal state workers have. The state’s government has put us in this predicament! A few years back I was talking with a state representative about school consolidation in our area and how it is very inefficient to have five school districts in one county with a student population under 2,200. He told me that measures that would consolidate these smaller districts would never pass because lawmakers are afraid of losing votes. Illinois has 868 School districts, across the border to our east, Indiana has 291. Pennsylvania, which roughly has the same population as The Land of Lincoln, has 514 school districts. There has to be some inefficiencies in our system that could be changed. What we need is some political courage to solve these problems without the fear of losing our legislative seat. Being a lawmaker was never intended to be a career. It is maddening that the system allows for campaign funding and behaviors that work in favor of our legislators and cut funding out of programs for our kids! Dear Legislators, please take our kids out of the cross-hairs!
(disclaimer…these are the my views and do not represent those of my employer)