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Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009 01:39 pm

Springfield schools waiting for federal recovery funds

$8.6 million in stimulus money slow to arrive

School improvements are on hold for Springfield School District 186 as it waits for $8.6 million in economic recovery funds awarded months ago.

Sangamon County schools have locked in $25.4 million in federal dollars under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion nationwide project meant to stimulate the economy.

But few schools have seen a cent of the money, says Larry McVey, managing principal of Title 1 programs for District 186. The money is routed from the federal government to state governments, then to state agencies, municipal governments, schools and private contractors – with a bureaucratic approval process at each step.

McVey says school districts must submit budgets to the Illinois State Board of Education, detailing how they will use their share of funds. Budgets must often be revised multiple times before approval, McVey says, a process which is taking several months because ISBE is understaffed to handle the flood of applications.

“When the stimulus money/ARRA money came out, they told the state agencies that they couldn’t hire any more staff,” McVey says. “So in theory, you have one person up there that is reading my $10 million application, and she’s also reading another 150 applications on top of that. I mean, I’m only doing my own, and I wouldn’t even know…I have no idea how they’re doing it.”

ARRA passed in February of this year, and despite submitting the district’s budget to ISBE in September, McVey says the application is not even on first review yet, adding that he is unsure when the funds will finally become available.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” McVey says. “I’m telling principals to be prepared for maybe March.”

Other area schools are in the same boat. Athens Community School District 213 has yet to see its ARRA funds, says superintendent Scott Laird, though he says the district’s budget was recently approved by ISBE. Athens stands to receive $156,779 in ARRA funds.

Administrators at Riverton and Ball-Chatham school districts confirmed their districts had not received their funds as well.

“The money just isn’t flowing,” said Riverton Elementary principal Stacey Binegar.

McVey says he has also spoken with administrators in Peoria and Rockford school districts, neither of which have approved budgets yet.  

“It’s not just Springfield,” he says. “It’s going on throughout the area.”

District 186 is at a distinct disadvantage in the application process because of its size, McVey says.

“We always try to put our budgets in as early as possible,” McVey says, adding that ISBE surprised school administrators by moving the application deadline forward to Nov. 1 this year, giving him less time to complete the necessary applications. As a result, District 186 fell near the end of the application list, behind smaller schools whose simpler budget requests require less review.

“We’re now ‘Applicant 175,’ you know?” he laughs.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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