The Southtown Star

Jobs bill hailed as savior, but schools not so sure

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

After months of fruitless job searching, 44-year-old Park Forest teacher Rachel Martin got an unexpected phone call Monday: the White House wanted her help in urging Congress to pass a $26 billion jobs bill that could put thousands of teachers back to work.

So Martin, who lost her job as a kindergarten teacher at Richton Square School in Richton Park last March, hopped on a Washington-bound flight at 6:40 a.m Tuesday.

Four hours later, she was flanking President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden as he implored the U.S. House to cast aside partisan differences to help save 160,000 teaching jobs nationwide.

The bill - which cleared the House and was signed by the president - allocates $10 billion to rehire teachers and $16 billion to fund Medicaid programs.

About $415 million will come to Illinois, saving an estimated 5,700 teaching jobs statewide. Another $550 million is earmarked for Illinois' Medicaid programs, according to Gov. Pat Quinn's office.

Some Southland school administrators doubt the bill will result in many teachers regaining their jobs, and that the state will instead use the funding to get current with general state aid that districts are owed.

Martin and unemployed West Virginia teacher Shannon Lewis were the only two teachers to stand with Obama during his speech.

"I want to thank Rachel and Shannon ... for the extraordinary work that they're doing each and every day with special education children, with kindergartners, so they're getting off to a right start," Obama said.

Martin now stands a good chance of being rehired by Matteson School District 162.

"We are grateful for President Barack Obama's leadership in pressing to assist school districts in bringing teachers such as Rachel Martin back to their classrooms," said District 162 Supt. Blondean Davis.

But some Southland school administrators say they have been burned before. When federal dollars pour in for education, they are more often than not used to plug deficits at the state level, not increase money for local districts, some educators say.

Schools don't expect budget help

Three Southland superintendents say they believe the extra money coming into the state will be used to pay the general state aid they have already been promised. General state aid is money set aside for districts by the state, and is based on the number of students and the income-levels of each district.

In Mokena School District 159, 14 teachers were laid off earlier this year. District 159 Supt. Karen Perry believes the federal dollars will be used to pay money the district is already owed.

General state aid payments at District 159 have dwindled from $4 million five years ago to $900,000 this school year, she said, which amounts to only $500 per student.

"We don't think we will see an extra dollar," Perry said. "This will just help them meet their $500 obligation."
Supt. Lawrence Wyllie also doubts the bill would be a big financial boon for Lincoln-Way High School District 210.

Lincoln-Way, which fired 35 teachers earlier this year, should receive an estimated $825,000 from the feds, according to preliminary estimates the state gave to U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson's office.

"If they gave me that money, would I hire new teachers? Absolutely not. I would use it to fill the (district's) deficit," Wyllie said.

Wyllie may not have that discretion.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters Tuesday the money must be used for compensation and other benefits associated with teachers, or teaching support staff like school nurses.

Duncan also said that the bill will have provisions in place to stop individual states from using the money for "rainy day funds" or to pay off state debt.

Still, administrators in districts hard-hit by the state's backlog of late payments are skeptical.

Chicago Heights School District 170 laid off a whopping 87 teachers last spring but recalled most of them even though officials knew they would be over budget this school year.

"I don't know if President Obama understands that the money he is sending to Illinois will not be used for anything extra," said Supt. Tom Amadio. "The state of Illinois will just take that money and just pay on the promises they already made us."

State Board of Education President Jesse Ruiz said the money will specifically be used to create or maintain jobs and reduce class sizes.

"The bottom line is this would definitely help," Ruiz said. "I see $415 million coming our way. I wouldn't ask too many questions, or turn it down either."

THE UNKINDEST CUTS

In March, the SouthtownStar reported that several Southland school districts were being forced to lay off teachers or not fill vacant positions due to the state's budget problems. It's possible that districts could bring back some of those teachers using a portion of the $415 million Illinois will receive in new federal money. Some districts have already recalled some teachers who were pink slipped at the end of the 09-10 school year.

Earlier this year, these were the staffing cuts either approved, or being considered, by area districts.

• Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210: 38 teaching positions, 13 support staff.

• Crete-Monee School District 201U: More than 100 nontenured teachers.

• Chicago Heights School District 170: 87 nontenured teachers.

• Summit Hill School District 161: Four classroom teachers, two aides, one special-education teacher, two part-time teachers.

• Orland School District 135: Four teachers were let go, and another 10 job openings went unfilled.

• Palos Heights School District 128: Four teachers.

• Chicago Ridge School District 127.5: 30 to 40 teachers, 10 to 15 support staff.

• Alsip, Hazelgreen and Oak Lawn School District 126: Two teachers.

• New Lenox School District 122: Five certified staff, five noncertified staff.

• North Palos School District 117: One nontenured teacher, eight teacher aides.