Education Funding

Regaining Lost Ground

By Catherine Gewertz — August 08, 2006 1 min read
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A small Illinois school district that struggled with financial woes for more than 15 years is back in the black under the direction of state-installed leaders.

After six years of state fiscal supervision, the Round Lake Area School District has a balanced budget, a good credit rating, revitalized facilities, and stronger community support.

Its leaders, hired by a state-appointed oversight panel, see the passage in March of a $17 million bond referendum as a sign that their work has restored faith in what had become a deeply dysfunctional district.

“We won it on respect and trust,” said Dennis Stonewall, who since 2003 has been the chief executive officer of the 6,500-student district northwest of Chicago.

When the state panel chose Walter Korpan as Round Lake’s chief financial officer in 2001, he came into a district with nearly $15 million in short-term debt and $96 million in long-term debt on an annual budget of $41 million.

Mr. Korpan and Mr. Stonewall saved $850,000 in a new contract for special education transportation. They retrained staff members in counting attendance, which boosted state aid by $2 million. They found out that 3,900 instead of 1,400 students were eligible for federally subsidized meals.

The State Finance Authority, the oversight body, let the district suspend its local tax cap for one year, delivering $2 million from a higher tax rate.

Help came from the community, too. A local office of the cable-television giant Comcast sent droves of employees into the district’s five schools to repaint all the classrooms. Volunteers from local churches spruced up fences.

District leaders restored high school electives that had been cut, and bolstered the sports program. They demanded cleaner schools. Attendance increased.

Student achievement is inching up, but still has a distance to go: Just four in 10 of the high school’s juniors met or exceeded state standards in reading last year.

Kim Kearby, the president of the 660-member Education Association of Round Lake, a National Education Association affiliate, said the local union made significant concessions, such as a cut in health insurance and a one-year pay freeze, to help the district regain its financial health. Now, he said, the state-local partnership has the district “on the right track.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week

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