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Illinois Boards To Sue State Over Lack of Aid for Reforms

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A coalition of Illinois school boards has announced plans to file suit against the state board of education, charging that the agency cannot force them to implement reforms mandated by the legislature if the state fails to fund them.

That move in turn has prompted the state board's legal adviser to mail letters to school-district superintendents warning that such a challenge could represent "a questionable use of public-education tax dollars'' and advising that they think twice before taking such a step.

By March 24, 237 of the state's approximately 980 school districts were expected to have entered into an intergovernmental agreement to sue the state board, according to Linda G. Knibbs, associate director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, which is organizing the effort.

Ms. Knibbs said the suit's aim is to obtain a court order forcing the board to drop unfunded programs that were authorized under the state's 1985 reform act.

The proposed suit would represent the second time that local boards have taken such action to challenge conditions imposed by the Illinois board.

In 1985, a state appeals court struck down a law that would have forced local boards to increase the pay of school nurses because the state did not provide funds for the raises.

That case and the one being prepared both hinge on the State Mandates Act, a 1981 law that stipulates that if the state fails to pay for certain programs, then local governments, including districts, are exempt from implementing them.

According to Ms. Knibbs, the I.A.S.A. will form a steering committee of between 5 and 11 coalition members that will advise the group's lawyers on which reform mandates to target for attack. One possibility she mentioned was a requirement that districts compile annual school report cards listing data on topics including student attendance, pupil-teacher ratios, and average teacher salaries.

Ms. Knibbs noted that the suit will not target particular programs based on their merits.

"This lawsuit should be viewed in value-neutral terms,'' she said. "It's a test of the State Mandates Act.''

State Board's Letter

In his Feb. 25 letter to the state's 57 regional superintendents, Sterling M. Ryder, the state board's lawyer, said that local boards were being "encouraged to join in litigation involving unspecified programs, with decisionmaking in the hands of persons to be named later, and without knowing on what basis costs will be apportioned.''

"I would advise any district to obtain the considered opinion of its legal counsel before embarking on such an adventure,'' he wrote.

In a March 8 letter to I.A.S.A. members, John G. Wargo, the association's executive director, charged that Mr. Ryder's letter was "misleading and inaccurate in several respects'' and that it represented an attempt to quash the movement toward litigation.

"The absence of any legal authority in Mr. Ryder's letter indicates that his only purpose for sending it to the regional superintendents was to chill the school districts' constitutional right to enter into intergovernmental agreements,'' Mr. Wargo wrote.

Lugene Finley, the state board's spokesman, said the board's official position is that "the letter speaks for itself.'' He added that there have been no developments since it was written that warrant additional comment.

In January, Ted Sanders, the state school superintendent, created a task force to investigate criticisms similar to those raised by I.A.S.A. The panel is expected to produce its report before the General Assembly ends its 1988 session on June 30.

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