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Scarce Funds Force Ill. District To Choose Extinction

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A school district in suburban Chicago has moved to protest inadequate funding from the state and federal governments by voting to dissolve and transfer its students to surrounding school systems.

The decision not to reopen next fall was announced last month by the 4,400-student North Chicago Community Unit School District #187.

With little property wealth and nearly half its students connected to the nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Center, the district is heavily dependent on state school funding and the federal impact-aid program.

The proposal has angered officials and parents in the contiguous Lake County districts, who may be able to force the district to stay in business next year. Nevertheless, the announced closure has spurred state lawmakers to search for alternative solutions and highlighted shortcomings of both the Illinois school-funding system and impact aid.

"If there is any bright side to this financial crisis in School District #187 and others like it, it is that a lot of attention is being paid to Congress's total failure to live up to the federal commitment,'' said Dave Kohn, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. John R. Porter, R-Ill., who represents the area and is an outspoken advocate for increasing impact aid.

"It's a systemic problem that is aggravated by impact aid,'' said Kim Knauer, a spokeswoman for the state board of education. "[The state funding formula has] an overreliance on local property taxes, certainly.''

Observers say the matter will end up in court, unless state or federal lawmakers find enough money for the district to operate next fall and make the long-term funding changes needed to hold the district together in the future.

If the issue does go to court, North Chicago probably would be barred from closing next fall, forcing officials to find some way to stay in operation during the 1993-94 school year.

"There are probably more questions than there are answers at this point,'' said Edward J. Gonwa, the regional superintendent for schools in Lake County. "It's going to be an interesting process.''

School Closings and Staff Cuts

While Illinois districts other than North Chicago have been declared "financial emergencies'' by the state board of education, none has petitioned for dissolution or is in such dire straits.

North Chicago, which over the past several years has endured $8 million in cuts to its budget, now at about $22 million, expects a shortfall of $1.5 million next year.

"We can't provide even a basic education for the children,'' said Pamela Johnson, the president of the North Chicago school board.

Ms. Johnson said the cutbacks have led to the closing of two schools, staff reductions, deep cuts in the number of student counselors and social workers, and the elimination of vocational-education and home-economics classes. In addition, high school yearbooks have been dropped and money for athletic equipment is available only from fund-raising events.

If dissolved, North Chicago would join seven other Illinois districts that have dissolved and consolidated over the years.

But those districts were mostly small and rural, while North Chicago is a large system by state standards.

High Taxes, Low Wealth

The district's tax rate, $6.72 per $100 of valuation, is the fourth highest in Illinois and the highest in Lake County. But its property wealth is quite low, at $23,709 per pupil of equalized assessed valuation.

Those figures contrast with the affluence of the five contiguous districts. The tax rate for the Lake Forest high school district, for example, is $1.24 per $100 on an equalized assessed valuation per pupil of $1.2 million.

Another difference is that North Chicago's enrollment is largely minority, while the surrounding districts are nearly all white.

Because of its small tax base, North Chicago is heavily reliant on an increasingly tight supply of state funding. State aid in recent years has dropped from a statewide average of 48 percent of school operating costs to 33 percent.

School-finance analysts point out that Illinois has some of the widest gaps in school funding between rich and poor areas of any state. But efforts to reduce disparities have so far been stymied in the courts, the legislature, and by state voters.

Superintendent John O. Simpson, who drafted the dissolution and transfer plan, also noted that North Chicago currently spends about $5,300 per pupil, but receives only about $1,700 in impact aid for each federally connected child.

"This is not to say it's Lake Forest's responsibility,'' Mr. Simpson said. "The state has to make better provisions for school districts that are in our kind of financial difficulties and the federal government has to recognize its responsibility.''

Opposing Dissolution

The dissolution plan was approved last month by the North Chicago school board by a vote of 5 to 2.

Before it can go into effect, the proposal must be approved by the seven-member Lake County Regional Board of School Trustees, which oversees boundary issues among districts in the county. The board is expected to begin hearings next month.

Under the plan, North Chicago's students would be distributed among Lake Bluff Elementary School District #65, Lake Forest Community High School District #115, Libertyville Community High School District #128, Oak Grove School District #68, and Woodland Community Consolidated School District #50.

School officials and parents in those districts have strongly criticized the proposal.

"We're at a stage where to protect the integrity of our school system, we'll have to fight this in court,'' said Patrick Patt, the superintendent of Oak Grove, a 550-pupil district whose enrollment would more than double under the plan.

"We would be destroyed almost immediately,'' he said. "All dissolution does is it shifts the problem, it doesn't resolve it.''

Mr. Patt said he is working to help North Chicago receive a cash infusion to keep operating next fall.

Among the possible avenues is the availability of about $450,000 in fiscal 1993 funding set aside by the Defense Department to aid heavily impacted districts.

In addition, Illinois lawmakers representing the districts surrounding North Chicago are also working to improve the district's financial situation.

Rep. Virginia Frederick is pushing a bill that would provide an extra $1 million for North Chicago schools, while Sen. David N. Barkhausen has a bill to tax surrounding districts to keep North Chicago afloat.

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