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Thursday, June 29, 2017 12:06 am

‘This has really got to stop.’

District 186 superintendent warns schools could close by 2018 without state budget

PHOTO BY ISTOCKPHOTO.COM
“It’s an interesting time to lead in an educational environment,” said District 186 superintendent Jennifer Gill during a recent interview. “I mean, no business would say, ‘We have no idea how much money we’re going to have but, yeah, let’s go ahead and keep our doors open.’”

Gill was elaborating on a statement she had made on June 19 during a presentation to the school board, when she said that unless a state budget is passed, the district will run out of funds to operate its schools after December.

The current year’s budget for the district ends June 30, with the new budget year starting in July. Last year, the state passed a stopgap budget, but this year that doesn’t seem likely. One consequence of the budget impasse is, the state remains behind on categorical payments due to the district (these are four payments per year which cover costs such as special education programs, free and reduced-price lunches and transportation). A second round of categorical funding arrived on June 23. “We have received two of seven categorical payments equaling $1,715,000 of $2,921,000 owed,” said Bree Hankins, coordinator of public relations and marketing for the district.

According to Gill, if there is still no state budget going into August, the district will not receive state payments amounting to approximately $3.6 million per month. “It is a per-pupil allocation and we are a very large system,” Gill said. “That will start to add up as we go into the school year. We won’t have other funds to cover that for very long.”

District 186 has taken steps to maintain balanced budgets for the past three years and has increased its cash flow district officials say. “All of this was in an effort to improve our bond rating status and also improve our district financial scores which the Illinois State Board of Education gives to each school,” said Gill, who points out that the district is no longer on the state board’s financial watch list, having been promoted to the “review” list. “It’s a step in the right direction,” she said, “but the impasse is going to put us back where we were.”

The district can’t operate for a full school year without receiving money from the state. “We will continue to operate a comprehensive education program for our students until we can’t any longer,” Gill said, echoing an anxiety that has begun to resonate throughout Illinois. “This has really got to stop. We’ve got to come together – it’s less about school financing reform than just getting a budget in place so we can move forward.”

Gill says that her statement at last week’s school board meeting was carefully considered as well as necessary. “I don’t like to be sensationalistic – this is all purely pragmatic,” Gill said. “It’s going to start to really hurt and we’re not going to be successful at doing what we need to do, which is to educate the students in Springfield and across the state. I know I have the right people around me to educate the kids. I just need to make sure I have the structures and support so I can do that.”

When people ask what specific things the district would cut to deal with the budgetary concerns, Gill is blunt. “You can’t just nickel and dime the loss of $3.7 million per month. My take is, let’s keep moving forward and provide comprehensive education. You have to make good choices – you can’t just cut things that are truly vital to a child. About 85 percent of our budget is salaries – those are the people who have to be there to teach the kids.”

Public education is just one aspect of how the state’s budget issues are impacting the district. “We’re also being affected by the loss of social service agencies because that directly impacts our families,” Gill said. “We are also impacted by our higher education partners not receiving their money because they are producing the next generation of teachers for me to hire – if they are not getting educated in the state of Illinois, then they are going to find jobs in other states. It becomes an evil cycle.”

Gill does her best to remain positive, mainly because she has no real choice. “It’s important for me to always stay calm and maintain an optimistic and hopeful view of things,” Gill said. “But at some point you have got to also be an advocate for what you know is right for the kids in your district.”

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com

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