The economic hard times that have hit this Illinois coal town are particularly visible inside its 113-year-old high school, where cracks in the walls and holes in the ceiling go unfixed and paint is peeling off the purple lockers lining the hallways.
But lately a greater worry is weighing on Superintendent Mike Gauch: that he’ll have to close the doors. He’s among scores of school officials who face this prospect as Illinois lawmakers’ epic fight over a state budget threatens to spill into summer and jeopardize the education of several hundred thousand students.
Unthinkable even a few months ago, the possibility of the impasse extending to a second year and shutting down school systems has grown stronger in recent weeks. If it happens, it would be the most traumatic consequence of a fight between the state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and Democrats who run the Legislature, and mark a new low for political dysfunction in the nation’s fifth-largest state.
“It scares me to death,” says Gauch, who estimates that without state funds his district of about 2,100 students could remain open until November or December, at best. Other superintendents say their schools won’t make it that long.
Rauner is in his second year in office after campaigning on a pledge to fix Illinois’ budget problems. As both sides have held firm over how to do that, Illinois has become the only state without a spending blueprint for the fiscal year that started July 1.
While money has stopped flowing for most social service programs, schools continued to get their state funding this year.
But that support is in doubt for the new fiscal year that begins in July, and no one knows exactly how long Illinois’ school districts can last without state funds to supplement local property tax revenue and cash reserves. Some districts may be able to borrow money. But about 130 — or 15 percent of the total statewide — had less than 90 days in cash reserves as of last summer, according to financial documents filed with the state. The numbers for most districts are bleaker today, superintendents say.
In recent weeks, parents and school officials across Illinois have started to sound the alarm. They point to the state’s colleges as evidence of what’s possible. Most public colleges have been cutting programs and laying off staff by the hundreds.
Chicago State University, a four-year institution that primarily serves African-American students that opened in 1867, was on the verge of closing at month’s end before lawmakers last week passed a stop-gap funding measure that colleges say still falls far short of a full budget.
“Had I not seen that with my own eyes I wouldn’t believe it either,” said Jeff Fritchtnitch, superintendent in the Altamont school district. “For the first time in 30 years (in education), I think this can happen.”
He estimates that his district, in a mostly rural southern part of Illinois, has enough cash on hand to cover operating expenses for 18 days.
Schools have so far been spared the direct impact of the political impasse because last summer, Rauner signed the budget for schools while vetoing almost everything else.
But K-12 funding is suddenly in the center of the fight as talks begin on a budget for next year and the November statehouse elections loom. Illinois has cut more than $1 billion from its education budget since 2009. It’s one of the worst ranked states in total dollars sent to districts per student.
In areas where there’s plenty of valuable property to tax, that’s worked out fine. But in places such as Harrisburg, where the coal mines that have long fueled the local economy are laying off workers, even higher-than-average tax rates can’t bring in enough.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are pushing separate plans for education, taking different approaches to balancing out the funds available for rich and poor districts. They object to Rauner’s education proposal because it uses the current formula though it increases money for most districts.
Rauner says Democrats’ plans would hurt schools in the suburbs, which is GOP territory, while providing a “bailout” for heavily Democratic Chicago, which would get state money for its financially shaky public school teacher pensions. He’s accused Democrats of playing political games.
“They’re trying to create a crisis so our public schools don’t open, to force a tax hike,” he said.
School administrators, meanwhile, are getting nervous about next fall’s classes. Illinois’ constitution says it’s a “fundamental goal” of the state to provide a free public education. It’s unclear whether closing schools could lead to legal challenges against the state or districts.
“We can’t levy enough tax money to even make payroll for a month or two,” said Jennifer Garrison, superintendent in the tiny town of Sandoval.
In Harrisburg, Gauch called a community meeting this month to warn parents about the threat.
Parent Jeremy Allen, whose three kids attend Harrisburg schools, said his options are limited because he can’t afford private school and other schools in the area will likely be in the same situation.
“I can’t move, and where would I move to?” said Allen, a graduate student at nearby Southern Illinois University. “I guess we would just do nothing.”
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