Herald & Review

State lawmakers fall short for schools

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The state's budget problems continue to hit close to home.

One of the latest examples is the news last week that the Decatur school district's transportation reimbursement from the state will be reduced by $1.4 million this year. The cut is in addition to about $20,000 that has not been paid to the fund from last year.

The district's solution, surely a short-term one, is to take more money out of its reserves to make up for the lack of state money. The district already had planned to transfer a little more than $1 million from working cash into the education fund. Now, that number is likely to double.

Norm Durflinger, interim director of business affairs for the district, told the board the district is going to be spending about $2.3 million more than it will receive. "Based on the preliminary information, what you did last year (in layoffs and eliminating positions), you're going to have to do it again."

The transportation fund bad news was somewhat offset by the good news that the state of Illinois has increased general state aid for the coming year, and the district will receive about $900,000 more. The increase, however, is not as large as it seems because the school district received federal stimulus money that was funneled through the state aid system.

School board President Dan Winter put the situation into its proper perspective when he said that living on reserves wasn't a sustainable plan. "I know we're not alone in this (among Illinois school districts), but if we keep going down this road, we'll have no emergency fund."

In addition to the questionable state revenues, the district is hurting because investment income is practically nonexistent. Three years ago, that figure amounted to $1.5 million.

The transportation issue, however, points out the folly in the way the state's budget is determined. By failing to pass a specific budget, the General Assembly has forced the Quinn administration to make the tough choices. It may indeed be wise to cut school district transportation funds, but that's a decision elected representatives should make, not a bureaucrat in Springfield.

The timing also is an issue. The school district is well into its fiscal year. That limits the reactions the board can take to a $1.4 million reduction. The state owes its school districts and other governmental entities a budget that is clear and adopted in a timely manner.

The board and district also need to realize the economic times we are in. Comments about people doing more work or raises for administrators being reduced from 4 percent to 2 percent ring hollow to taxpayers who have received no pay increases or are out of work.

But the biggest fault lies with the state and a budget process that has proven once again to be inoperable.