The Register-News

State still owes schools for last year

Friday, October 01, 2010

MT. VERNON — While the first quarter of the state’s fiscal year 2011 concluded Thursday, area schools are still awaiting payments from the state for fiscal year 2010.

General state aid payments have been made to schools since the start of the current fiscal year, but categorical payments — in areas such as transportation, special education and early childhood grant reimbursements — continue to lag.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” said Woodlawn High School Superintendent Alan Estes. “We need all of that to come in eventually.”

The late payments are mounting, with Mt. Vernon Township High School owed roughly $400,000 in late state payments and Mt. Vernon City Schools District 80 owed more than $1.5 million. District 80 has yet to be paid $946,000 owed by the state last year and already is behind $578,000 in fiscal year 2011 payments.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, schools within the state started their current academic year owed a total of $774 million by the state.

Schools are not alone in awaiting payments by the state. In his quarterly report released in July, Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes painted a grim picture of a state already mired in financial crisis. Hynes reported a backlog of more than $4.7 billion in unpaid bills and fund transfers. That figure, he wrote, compared to $2.785 billion still owed at the end of the previous fiscal year.

“Just as important, the delay in paying vouchers was 153 working days this June compared to 99 days at this time last year,” the report indicated. “Some transfers to other state funds have been delayed for the entire fiscal year and the state was unable to transfer $276 million back to the Budget Stabilization Fund on June 30. Both the amount payable and the days delayed are record highs.”

There is at least a glimmer of hope for those owed money by the state, as Public Act 96-958 extended the “lapse” period for Illinois to pay bills from a previous fiscal year from Aug. 31 to Dec. 31. Still, Hynes’ report offered little encouragement: “Other than payments for mandated debt service on state bonds, general state aid to education, federal stimulus related Medicaid and critical state operations, an extremely limited amount of fiscal year 2011’s obligations are likely to be addressed in calendar year 2010 while the state is still dealing with the prior fiscal year’s bills.”

While not receiving all money owed by the state, schools are getting some assistance. The Illinois State Board of Education altered the way it grades schools for fiscal responsibility, taking late state payments into account, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday signed a bill that allows schools to transfer funds from their health, life and safety budget into operations and maintenance budgets.

Quinn also extended the “Put Illinois to Work” federal jobs stimulus program for another two months in Illinois, despite an end to the federal program. Some superintendents locally and throughout the state have expressed concern for education in Illinois once various federal stimulus programs conclude.

Area superintendents say they anticipated the continued — if not worsening — status of late payments by the state and worked to address the issue within their budgets.
“All indications were it was going to be a lean year,” said MVTHS Superintendent Dr. Mike Smith. “We were able to anticipate with some reductions in the budget.”

Some schools, such as Woodlawn, manage to survive by relying on a budget surplus. When that whittles to an alarming level, tax anticipation loans are pursued in order to maintain school operation until state payments are received and the loans are repaid.

Estes said his school has experienced a natural saving as longtime staff members retired and were replaced by less experienced personnel. He said five administrators and staff members are eligible to retire in the near future.

“The timing’s been actually pretty good for us on that,” he said.

Estes said school boards, administrators and staff members all are facing the state’s financial crisis together.

“I think our boards understand,” he said. “I think our teachers understand in negotiation. I think that’s due to good communication.”