Budget Woes Threaten New Showcase School

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Aurora, Ill--The students who will travel from their dormitories at the state-sponsored public residential high school here to the Capitol in Springfield this week have a personal stake in their on-site observation of how the government works.

In a brief session that convenes this month, the legislature will be asked to virtually double the current appropriation for their school--the one-year-old Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, the newest in a breed of schools established by states to help lure high-technology industries.

Without additional money from the state, school officials say, the academy will close its doors in January, forcing the 388 sophomores and juniors who live and attend school here to return home or seek other options.

Optimistic Outlook

Although the school's budget crisis is a constant topic of conversation in the halls of the cavernous main building, both students and staff believe that lawmakers will find the money needed to keep the school open.

"I'm extremely optimistic," said Stephanie P. Marshall, the school's director, who says that budget uncertainties have not deterred her from laying plans

"I can't believe that we would be closed by inadvertance, by benign neglect."

The new academy was one of only a handful of state programs and agencies whose funding for the current fiscal year was not reduced from last year's levels by legislators seeking to balance the state's budget without raising taxes.

But having accepted a second class of entering students this September, the academy's enrollment--and thus, its costs--have nearly doubled.

Academy officials have scaled back plans for expansion and have reduced their budget request for operating expenses this year from $11.6 million to $7 million. Half of that amount has already been allocated by the legislature, leaving the school with an estimated $3.5-million shortfall. The academy expects to get another $300,000 in Chapter 2 funding arranged for it by the state, still far short of its revised budget need.

Gregg Worrell, the academy's business manager, insists that it would be left no alternative but to close if it does not receive most of its request for a $3.2-million supplemental appropriation. "I don't know that we can keep our integrity and credibility if we send half of the students home."

Male sophomores at the school are still housed in makeshift rooms converted from former laboratories in the main building. The remainder have moved into the newly constructed dorms clustered within a short walk of the main facility.

The academy's 93-acre campus is located along the emerging high-technology corridor that parallels Interstate 88 west of Chicago. The lavish facility, which was designed on the open-classroom model, was built in 1977 by the Aurora West School District but abandoned shortly thereafter when projected enrollment increases did not materialize.

Model for Other States

The school attracts visitors from other states and nations who are considering opening similar schools to tap the full potential of a select group of gifted and talented students.

More than 20 states this year considered or adopted bills relating to residential high schools, drawing on the experience of the imsa and longer-running models in Louisiana and North Carolina.

"It's really quite paradoxical to me," says Ms. Marshall, "that at the same time people are coming to see how well we've done, we're fighting to sustain an institution that was so boldly established."

Added Leon Lederman, director of the nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and a member of the academy's board of trustees, "It's hard to build an institution, but it's trivial to destroy one."

Legislators were surprised this year when the third-term Republican governor, James R.Thompson, announced that the state would need to raise taxes simply to maintain the current level of services. The Governor's message contrasted dramatically with the rosy fiscal picture he had painted during his re-election campaign in 1985.

Various tax packages proposed in this year's session garnered only8minimal support, so the final budget reflected cuts in nearly all state programs, including $113 million for precollegiate education.

"I can see us losing, not because the legislature is against us, but because we're caught up in a tragic political situation," says Mr. Lederman.

When it convenes for a brief "veto override" session this month, the legislature will be faced with demands for more funding from numerous agencies that have experienced budget cuts.

Some of the loudest cries will be heard from supporters of the Chicago Public Schools, which are faced with having to eliminate 1,700 teaching and administrative positions to pay for a proposed teacher contract.

"We have a lot of pressing needs, and no money," said State Senator Arthur Berman, chairman of the chamber's education committee.

Senator Berman is also co-chairman of the Citizens Council on School Problems, a legislatively established advisory body, which voted unanimously last week to endorse the $3.2- million supplemental appropriation for the academy.

The move was the latest in a growing list of endorsements for the school, many coming from the state's business and economic-development organizations.

More than $900,000 has been donated to the school by small and large corporations, mostly in the form of computers and other equipment needed for the type of intensive training the academy's planners envision.

Lobbying Effort

About 120 of the academy's students will be in Springfield this week as part of a schoolwide project on state government.

The students make no secret of the fact that they view this trip as an opportunity to test their fledgling lobbying skills. One even offered to capitalize on his status as a former page in the Capitol. "About half of the legislators know me," he confided.

The lobbying effort fits in neatly with the school's philosophy that students learn best when they understand and apply the information they are taught.

The students are asked to assume much of the responsibility for directing their learning, but their level of motivation continues to surprise teachers who have already witnessed it for more than a year.

"This is a really unique environment," said Bernard Hollister, a second-year history teacher. "No matter how overloaded the kids seem, 50 or 60 will sign up for every new activity we offer."

The students will be asking the legislators to take a political gamble: to increase funding for a new program at the expense of existing programs.

A key player, Governor Thompson, "said in July that if the appropriation for the school had been $7 million, he would have signed it," says Gail Lieberman, his education aide. The isssue is not whether the legislature or the Governor supports the school, she said, "the issue is what revenue is available for what purpose."

Supporters of the academy point to the passage this past summer of a $22.5-million bond issue for dormitory construction as an indication that the legislature will not renege on its commitment. Earlier, $17.5 million had been allocated for the same purpose.

"The state would end up with a tremendous amount of egg on its face," if the school is forced to close, says Mr. Lederman. "States are jockeying for position" to become high-technology leaders, he says, pointing to the first competition between states for the massive federal superconducting supercollider project.

For now, the students are taking their case directly to the legislature. "It's an excellent idea," says Senator Berman. "The legislators will see who they're voting for or against, instead of deciding based on some numbers in a table."

Vol. 07, Issue 07

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