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Despite balanced budget, D-200 feels state money crunch

The Illinois Legislature was called back to Springfield on Wednesday for a special session to solve the state’s growing pension problem. The debt crisis had real effects on local public funding, including public education – even beyond payment of teacher pensions.

Community Unit School District 200, while generally well-funded, is no exception.

“We’ve seen decreases across the board,” said District 200 Assistant Superintendent of Business Operations Bill Farley. “There have been a number of line items in the state budget that are just gone.”

Education has been hit hard the past several years as the state government tries to cover its nearly $100 billion shortfall. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, the state’s General Fund allocation for P-12 education has been cut by more than $861 million, roughly 12 percent, since 2009. It nearly was cut again this year in Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget before the Legislature overrode his suggestions.

The district received $9.5 million from the General State Aid for Education fund in 2008, said Farley, which was part of an allocation designed to provide a set number of dollars per student to schools across Illinois. The next year, District 200 received only $6.9 million, and it currently receives less than $6.3 million. That translates to roughly $6,119 a student – well below the suggested levels of $9,000 a student.

“Our special education fund from the state has dropped from $3 million to $1.7 million the last three years,” Farley said. “We had $2 million in education transportation, now only $400,000. We’re having to shift costs to cover things we didn’t originally have to cover.”

Some state programs have been cut completely, such as $325,000 in reading improvement funds, textbook loan money and a gifted program grant.

District 200 kept a balanced budget the past few years, shedding more than $15 million to do so. The district recently was commended for their financial profile by the ISBE, rated in the “Recognition” category, the highest offered. That balance did not come easy, Farley said.

“We’re just in sustain mode right now,” he said. “We’ve had to cut back on materials, staff and delay implementing programs. We try to minimize the effects, but ultimately everything goes back to the classroom.”

State Representative Jeanne Ives (R-42) said many people don’t see the direct effects of the pension problems, although many encounter those suffering from symptoms of the pension situation in day-to-day life.

“They see their neighbor doesn’t have a job, that services are being crowded out and declines on spending because we have to spend it on pensions,” she said.

Ives predicts that neither of the two bills considered will create enough long-term savings to effectively solve the pension crisis, meaning that the state likely will approve less spending on education rather than more.

Farley said while schools can do things such as look at energy savings programs and bid out services such as bus transportation and garbage, these decisions change how districts do business on a daily basis.

“It seems like we have to pick our poison, burden taxpayers or have the state pay less,” he said. “We have to be a realist. But it also shifts burdens back onto our staff and in the classroom.”

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