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Hard-Pressed East St. Louis Rejects Plan for 600 Layoffs

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The East St. Louis, Ill., school board late last week voted to reject plans to lay off 600 employees, one-third of its work-force, amid a deepening fiscal crisis in the school district and the community.

The district, the state's fourth-largest, has been under state supervision since December, when Illinois officials stepped in to help control mounting problems in the district's $70-million budget. The layoff plan is a key element in the state's effort to bring the budget, now burdened with millions in unpaid bills, under control.

School-board members said too many teachers would be laid off un4der the plan advanced by the superintendent, Elmo Bush. Board members said they would still try to come up with a layoff plan by April 1, the deadline for sending notices to school employees.

"They would have to do it by April 1 under their contract," said Gary Ey, assistant superintendent for school finance for the Illinois Department of Education. "If they don't, it legally locks them into the teaching staff and support staff they have."

The layoffs would be effective at the end of the school year in June. State law requires that employees be notified of layoffs at least 60 days before the end of the school year.

In December, the Illinois Board of Education had certified the district as being in financial difficulty. It asked district officials to submit a plan for cutting $12 million from its budget. The district, which enrolls 16,500 students and employs 1,800 workers, has more than $10 million in unpaid bills, officials said.

Mr. Ey said state officials have been working closely with East St. Louis administrators.

"We have had no less than 10 people down there at certain times," he said, "to work with their staff and evaluate their plant, organizational structure, and accounting control."

The school system's financial struggle mirrors the bleak economic situation in East St. Louis, a city of 40,000 across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The city has been troubled for years by a declining tax base and population.

The city government is reportedly so deeply in debt that trash has not been collected in a year and only the most urgent of bills gets paid. It, too, is under the financial oversight of state officials.

The school system is the city's largest employer, but its employees have experienced delays recently of up to two weeks in getting their paychecks.

"In spite of having the potential of massive layoffs and delayed pay, our employees have held up and continued to do their job," said Terry Turley, president of the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, which represents the school employees.

The union had criticized the scale of the proposed layoffs, but Mr. Turley indicated he was resigned to the fact that the district had to take drastic steps to regain its financial health.

"To some degree, we welcome the state coming in and demanding the district take measures to get back on a sound financial basis," he said.

District officials were unavailable for comment last week.--mw

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