My Journal Courier

Education advocates hope to stem state spending cuts

Monday, November 01, 2010

School superintendents, early childhood education advocates and special education coordinators are calling for state administrators to maintain education funding in light of the state's budget troubles.

In the second of six planned public hearings, Illinois State Board of Education gathered last week in Springfield to gather suggestions as the state agency prepares its next budget.

The state faces a record budget deficit estimated to reach $15 billion, which includes about $6 billion in unpaid bills to vendors that provide services to the state.

Les Stevens, superintendent for North Greene, said he was frustrated by the lack of funding for his and other rural school districts.

"In our deficit reduction plan, I've included cuts which would change things substantially in our district — eight teachers, three and a half to four classroom aides, a custodian, a bus driver. In our teacher area, that's over 10 percent of our teaching force, which would seriously and negatively impact our ability to deliver quality instruction," he said.

Alyssa Waag advocated in support of the Peoria County Bright Futures program, which provides early childhood education and support to families.

Waag, an 18-year-old single mother, said Bright Futures family education specialist Penelope Smith helped her overcome difficulties with pregnancy and parenthood.

"I had postpartum depression and they gave me information and ... led me in the right direction on what to do as far as getting help," she said. Waag is now attending Illinois Central College in Peoria with the aim of going into nursing.

Over each of its last two budgets, state government has been the recipient of about $1 billion in federal stimulus funds directed at education.

Some federal money continues to trickle in, but the lack of sustained federal funding could lead to a potential "cliff" that state government would have to make up with cuts or new revenue.

Representatives of school districts, such as Diane Rutledge, executive director of the Large Unit District Association, which serves the 55 largest unit school districts in Illinois, advocated that local school administrators know their communities best and could make the lowest-impact cuts.

"We believe local control is where we would like to see our decisions being able to be made. Again, local staff, superintendents and their boards are reflecting their community and reflecting their needs," she said.

But Carolyn Blackwell, a Springfield native and gifted education supporter, said the state should have some say on which education programs are cut.

"When funding does get tight at the district level, music, art and even athletic programs take precedence over gifted education. To overcome this, we would like to see more responsibility assumed by the state and policymakers to direct these funds specifically toward the gifted learner," she said.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch said a lot of the frustration with state government stems from the fact that local administrators and education supporters do not know when they will receive payments from the state.

That is leading to school districts having to plan out budgets and payroll without funding. Koch said the state is still making payments to schools from this March. He added that those payments from the 2010 fiscal year would take priority.

When asked what he took away from the meeting, Koch said, "Districts wanting flexibility ... also wanting to know a number (for state payments). I think one of the problems we have now is simply that they don't know and they're not getting (fiscal year) payments, we're still backlogged on those numbers," he said.

The Illinois State Board of Education is holding four more public hearings to plan its next budget. Koch said his agency will consider the suggestions and finalize a proposed budget by December.