The Southtown Star

Southland schools may get $23M in stimulus money

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The federal government is sending an anticipated $22.7 million to Southland school districts for the 2010- 11 school year, the payoff from a federal jobs bill designed in part to save the jobs of thousands of teachers who were laid off this year.

But school districts have more questions than answers on when, and if, the money will end up in their coffers.
Gov. Pat Quinn applied for the money Aug. 16, and state officials expect to receive a total of $415 million in a matter of weeks. Educators say they have been largely left in the dark about the logistics of the money they are supposed to receive.

"We are not hearing a thing at this point. We are not clear on the federal guidelines," said Supt. Margaret Longo , of Forest Ridge School District 142 in Oak Forest.

The state has not determined if the money will be distributed in a lump sum or attached to the bimonthly general state aid payments each district receives from the state, said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the state board of education.

The money must be spent on compensation and benefits "necessary to retain existing employees, to recall and rehire former employees and to hire new employees," read the guidelines issued to states by the U.S. Department of Education. The state and school districts will be required to maintain records so the federal government can perform audits to ensure districts are using the money for staff, not to hire new administrators or fund other school programs. But state government can't dictate how school districts use the money.

Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, said the legislation "ties the hands of future state budgets" because of requirements that state spending on education may not dip below 2009 levels.

"It may seem like a temporary reprieve, but we're really setting up larger spending cliffs," Rasmussen said. "Are we just delaying the hard choices and hoping for things to change in the future or should we make tough choices now?"
Federal guidelines also show the money can be spent on school staffers for things such as performance bonuses, retirement benefits, pension fund contributions, student loan repayment assistance and reimbursement for child care expenses.

"In other words, nothing related to the education of children," Longo said.

Longo is more concerned with maintaining funding for her district's early childhood education programs in the long term. Due to an unexpected spike in pre-kindergarten enrollment, the district was forced to hire more teachers then it anticipated this year.

But she can't count on the federal stimulus money to keep her staffing levels up beyond this school year. According to federal guidelines, the money must be spent by September 2012.

"We will have to make some hard decisions in January of this year on keeping our pre-kindergarten and our zero through three (years old) program," Longo said.

Orland Park District 135 Supt. Paul Howell called the $202,000 his district will receive a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

"I look at this as a really good one-year infusion. But if you hire a staff member and they have to leave the following year, I really have some questions if that's the approach to take," Howell said.

Mike Riordan, superintendent of Oak Lawn Community High School District 229, said it's too early to tell whether the $178,000 his district is expected to get from the federal aid bill will translate into additional teachers being hired.

The school district is not only facing fewer dollars in state funding, but revenue from property taxes is also behind schedule, he said. "We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode to find out if that's additional money, or if it's to fill holes that are already existing in the state budget," Riordan said. "If it's money that's on top of what we were expecting, that gives us some flexibility. It could allow us to hire more people."

In New Lenox's elementary school district, the $372,000 they are waiting for isn't enough to cover even one payroll. But in a state where some school districts are on the verge of financial collapse, it's unlikely any new money will be turned away.

"Every little bit that the state would like to give us and the federal government would like to give us we would love to have," said Jenny Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for New Lenox District 122.