Ill. District Eyes Loan To Keep Its Doors Open

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Facing a severe funding shortage, a suburban Chicago school district may shut its doors for three weeks in March unless school board members can work out a last-minute loan from a neighboring town.

The shutdown has been on the school calendar since last spring, when the Ridgeland, Ill., school board decided that in order to make it through the school year, its four elementary schools and lone middle school would have to close temporarily.

The break was to be a premature summer vacation--new tax dollars will become available to the 2,100-student district late next month, and the district planned to extend its calendar to June 26.

"This wasn't a budget-cutting measure," said Ridgeland school board member Tom Truty. "We decided to close down because we have no money."

Last week, an 11th-hour offer of a $500,000 interest-free loan from the neighboring village of Oak Lawn for the first time offered a glimmer of hope that the district might hold off the scheduled closings.

A special school board meeting was scheduled for late last week, where Ridgeland board members were scheduled to consider the offer.

No Pennies From Heaven

Although school officials were thankful for Oak Lawn's offer, they did not consider the cash pennies from heaven. Oak Lawn wanted the money back within a year. And regardless of how Ridgeland's seven school board members decide to go, officials in the district say they have yet to find a long-term solution to their cash-flow woes.

"This money will definitely give us some breathing room," said Mr. Truty, who planned to vote to accept the loan and keep schools open in March. "But the problems persist."

According to Superintendent James Rajchel, the board vote was "too close to call" last week.

Walter Pleviac, the district's business manager, said the district has been struggling for the past two years.

At the root of the budget problems, he said, are a state-imposed cap on property-tax rates and local zoning that gives property owners cut-rate taxes.

Two ballot measures asking voters to approve a school property-tax increase failed last year. A third will go to voters April 1.

Morale Sags

The local financial woes are compounded by the fact that state school aid accounts for just 6 percent of the suburban district's budget. Statewide, Illinois averages paying one-third of overall school costs.

State leaders have signaled that reforming school finance will be a priority this year, although it is uncertain how well wealthy districts--even those like Ridgeland that have a hard time tapping that wealth--might fare. ("Odds Seen Better for Funding Reform in Ill.," in This Week's News.)

With a hiatus or loan looming as a short-term fix, Mr. Pleviac is already planning ahead: "We're going to have to borrow again in June to keep things flying in September."

He said school officials will have to come up with $500,000 in cuts to make an $11 million budget target for the 1997-1998 school year.

Administrators are considering proposals to close a couple of schools, cut sports programs and other extracurricular activities, and even eliminate the school lunch hour by providing a classroom "snack break" and dismiss school earlier in the day.

Solutions Still Lacking

According to Mr. Pleviac, the $750,000 worth of budget cuts over the past two years has been relatively painless: Textbook and computer purchases have been put off, class sizes have grown a bit, and some special education programs have been abandoned.

He warned, though, that unless the April 1 tax referendum passes or state lawmakers pass school funding changes that solve the district's money crunch, the next round of cuts "will hurt."

Principal Frank Milkevitch of Lieb Elementary School said the earlier cuts have done their share of damage.

A district employee for 26 years, Mr. Milkevitch said morale among both teachers and students in his 525-student school is the lowest he has seen in years.

Fearing layoffs, promising young teachers are looking for jobs elsewhere. And, to his amazement, he said, "children walk the halls talking to each other about what will happen to their schools if the ballot referendum doesn't pass."

"It's taken its toll," the principal said. "We need a long-term solution."

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