Budget worries: Will your school open on time? How long can it stay open?

Belleville East High School
Belleville East High School

Whether schools in the metro-east open in August depends largely on two factors: The state passing a budget, which will allow districts to get their money; and what actions the school boards have taken to save or borrow money over the last few years.

Even districts that say they will open on planned start dates are concerned about how long they can stay open.

“I still, in my mind, cannot believe that either side would not let schools open over this fight,” said Art Ryan, superintendent of Cahokia District 187.

He’s not the only hopeful one.

I fully expect that we will pass a K-12 budget...This process we’ve all gone through and had to endure, it’s not good for anybody. People have been so entrenched in their positions and it has caused some real problems.

State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton

“I have my fingers crossed that our state leaders will come up with a budget real soon,” said Belleville District 118 Assistant Superintendent Ryan Boike.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are confident Illinois’ schools will get their funding. They’ll be in session in Springfield on Wednesday, a day before the current fiscal year ends.

Last summer, while the rest of the state’s agencies hung in limbo without a budget, funds for K-12 schools were approved. But years of late payments — and sometimes no payments at all — continue to strain the state’s school districts.

Local jitters

Districts in the area reached by the News-Democrat get as much as 75 percent of their revenue from the state, with the remainder from local property taxes. That ratio is flipped for some districts, including Smithton, which gets 26 percent of its revenue from the state.

Smithton will start school on time, the superintendent wrote in a letter posted on the district’s website, and can operate for 220 days with the cash reserves and local revenue.

Susan Homes wrote that the district has already eliminated positions and enacted other cost-saving measures; yet it joins the 80 percent of St. Clair County schools that are operating with “Education Fund deficits due to state funding issues, declining equalized assessed valuation following the recession of 2008, and other revenue shortfalls outside of district control,” Homes wrote.

Two hundred twenty days is significantly longer than Cahokia or Belleville schools foresee operating.

“We have forecast we probably have roughly 90 days of operations cash on hand,” Ryan said.

“We may be able to rework some bonds and do something, but our borrowing power is very, very limited… I think that’s where a lot of other districts are in the same boat,” he said, explaining that the district has made a number of cuts in the last few years, and yet had to borrow money to continue. Districts just don’t have leverage to borrow any more.

Some of that borrowing by districts has been against the next year’s taxes, Ryan said, although that is not the case for Cahokia.

“The only thing we can start school on is what’s coming in taxes,” Ryan said.

Stalemate in Springfield

That’s because, for the moment, it’s unclear whether anything will come from the state of Illinois.

Last summer, when the state dove off the fiscal cliff at the end of an old fiscal year without a budget for the new one, public schools were spared. While parrying every other budget bill passed by Democrats in the General Assembly, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner approved the bill funding public K-12 schools, even increasing the amount schools got compared to the year before.

Rauner has again vowed schools will get their money and planned another increase in the funds that schools get.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers on Friday announced bipartisan working groups negotiating temporary budgets had largely finished their work and that it was up to Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to strike a final deal.

I believe the schools are going to get their money. I do not totally agree with the governor about increasing the amount of money going to K-12 education. Telling people you’re giving more than you can afford, you’re backing yourself into a tax increase.

State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon

“I believe the schools are going to get their money,” State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said Thursday.

“I do not totally agree with the governor about increasing the amount of money going to K-12 education,” he continued. “Telling people you’re giving more than you can afford, you’re backing yourself into a tax increase.”

He also said schools shouldn’t expect to get more money this year than they did last year. “If they could get what they got last year and get it on time, they’d be as happy as they can be,” he said. “This is the problem with piecemeal budgeting. You really back yourself into some big problems by not dealing with the budget as a whole.”

Optimism toward the approval of funds for public schools apparently is bipartisan.

“I fully expect that we will pass a K-12 budget,” Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, said Friday. He said he hoped legislators would fund schools at the same level they were funded last year, if not more.

As for the rest of the budget, Costello said he hopes lawmakers can piece together spending plans to get the state through to January 2017.

“A stopgap would not surprise me at all,” Costello said, referring to a temporary budget. “I’m hoping we can get to stopgap at a minimum, but I would love to see a full year.”

One possible way to alleviate some strain on school funding — and all other state programs, for that matter — is to craft budgets to fund two years of operations instead of one.

“Makes sense,” McCarter said. “It takes some of the politics out of it which is very helpful. This is all about politics. This is all about politicians determining what they can do to get reelected and make the most people happy as possible.”

The idea makes sense to Costello, too.

“That has been talked about,” he said. “This process we’ve all gone through and had to endure, it’s not good for anybody. People have been so entrenched in their positions, and it has caused some real problems.”

House members are scheduled for a Wednesday session, their first time back to Springfield since coming to no agreement when the legislative session ended in May. They’ll only have a day: The fiscal year ends at midnight Thursday.

‘At ground zero’

At the June board meeting, Superintendent Matt Klosterman said the Belleville elementary and middle school district, if school starts as scheduled on Aug. 18, would operate “as long as we can with the reserve we have.”

“The challenge is we would spend everything down; we could be at ground zero with no reserves at all (when the budget does pass),” Klosterman said.

The district “might make it a month” in school with current reserves, said Assistant Superintendent Ryan Boike. But if local revenue comes through as expected, the district could have school into November before having to close doors.

The door-closing part opens other issues, including what districts will do about contracts with various unions.

At the board meeting, Klosterman said the district’s legal advisers were still looking into the groups the district has contracts with, including teachers, “who expect to come to work and be paid.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers — which represents teachers in District 118 as well as teachers in East St. Louis, Cahokia and O’Fallon school districts — said each district has its own contract and the union could not make a “blanket statement” as to what steps it might take if school does not start as planned.

A representative from the IFT did not answer questions about any response from the union to delaying school or to stopping school if there is no budget.

“Districts should exhaust all means to ensure schools open on time. We are dedicated to the students we serve and will work towards efforts to ensure schools open in the fall,” said media representative Kenzo Shibata. He and the union place the impasse blame squarely upon the governor, saying, “We know Gov. Rauner is holding things up now to advance his agenda.”

Belleville District 201’s administrators said there are district responsibilities that are “budget consuming.”

“I think if you have funds available, you may still have to fill those obligations regardless,” said Belleville 201 Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer.

Not just about money

High school districts like Belleville District 201 have considerations other than money and contracts.

“Really for us we have kids who need to meet certain timelines to receive academic scholarships,” Superintendent Jeff Dosier said. “We don’t want the kids to get caught up in a political mess.”

The high school district says it has enough to get Belleville East and Belleville West started and to have classes at least through the first semester.

“High school kids may have a lot to lose if they don’t go to school,” Dosier said. “If I was making a decision about elementary schools, I’d probably look at it differently.”

Administrators across the metro-east say they’ve been making cuts and carefully budgeting what funds they do have to provide education.

Parents have more concerns.

“If my 4-year-old doesn’t go to school, then I can’t go to work,” said District 118 parent Lisa Hayes, who has a son attending the extended year program at Jefferson Elementary and another son at West Junior High.

She advocated for further cuts — saying even that “maybe (extended care is) one of the things they need to think about cutting.” She also wants improved communication with parents.

“Maybe they could hold a forum in July at Westhaven … it affects a lot of parents as far as child care, as far as work. There’s a whole lot of issues around as far as when is school going to start.”

Hayes said she has been a substitute teacher in District 118, and she’s not expecting a pay raise or added services.

“Why don’t you cut your salary, cut administrators’ salary, do a pay freeze? Do whatever they can themselves to avoid cutting any services for our kiddos,” she said. “Maybe they have somebody who is thinking of different ways to cut from somewhere without sacrificing from the students.”

$2.5 Estimated salary cost for Cahokia schools for one month

Ryan, of Cahokia, said there are often suggestions to cut lunch programs or other programs, but some of those wouldn’t actually create any savings. Cahokia’s poverty level means “the lunch program doesn’t cost us anything when it’s said and done,” he said.

“You always get, ‘Let somebody take a pay cut,’” he said. “Our district, ballpark, has 400 full-time employees, 200 to 300 part-time employees. Let’s say everybody takes a 10 percent pay cut — you still have to figure out the 90 percent.”

Ryan said the salary cost to his district is roughly $2.5 million a month, for about 20 days a month.

Most districts pay between 70 and 75 percent of their budget into salaries and benefits, said Boike of District 118. He said a pay cut “might be a very temporary fix.”

“I have my fingers crossed that our state leaders will come up with a budget real soon,” he said.

‘Multiple possibilities’

Several Madison County school districts will take up the issue of whether to start on time in their meetings this month or next, in order to give parents enough time to make plans. Robert Green, superintendent of Collinsville Unit 10, said the board would vote at its July meeting whether to start on time or delay the opening of school.

“Like most school districts, we’re considering our options under multiple possibilities,” Green said.

Triad Superintendent Leigh Lewis said it will be a topic of discussion at its June meeting on Monday.

“We have been discussing how the state budget impasse is and will continue to impact our planning, as well as what will happen in the coming months if the state doesn’t pass a budget,” Lewis said. “Triad had not made a definitive decision on what they will do once our reserves combined with local tax money is depleted… and we have estimated that we will be out of money by the end of the first semester.”

In the meantime, however, Lewis said they are planning and preparing as though school will start on time in August.

Likewise, Highland District 5 will open on time “regardless of state budget,” according to Superintendent Mike Sutton. “We plan to use local revenues from property taxes and monies available to operate through the fall,” he said. “If the state does not appropriate any funds, we could operate through December.”

Granite City has already decided to close two buildings for the 2016-17 school year and restructure the elementary schools, with prekindergarten through fourth grade going to attendance centers instead of neighborhood schools. But school will open as scheduled on Aug. 17.

“We have held the line with practically everything, focusing on needs and absolute necessities,” Superintendent Jim Greenwald said. “We naturally are concerned, and our frugality has allowed us to have operational money to open and hopefully sustain.”

Edwardsville District 7 is prepared to open on time and stay open all year, according to Superintendent Lynda Andre. “Our district is heavily reliant on property taxes,” Andre said, about 80 percent of District 7’s budget. Thus, she said, they are less affected by state appropriations.

“I know other districts are funded differently, with much more state funding,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean Edwardsville can go on indefinitely without reimbursements for per-student funding, transportation and special education. Andre estimated that the district will have a $2.5 million deficit after a $2 million budget cut earlier this year and has a procedure in place to be able to borrow money while they wait for the state.