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Four Metro East school districts on state watch list for shaky finances

A hand distributing cash with a dialogue box.
Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio

Four school districts in Madison County are on Illinois State Board of Education’s financial watch list for having low cash reserves and a high debt ratio.

The Alton, Bethalto, Edwardsville and Triad  districts earned the state’s lowest financial ranking based on their spending in fiscal year 2016.

One of those districts, Bethalto, is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed earlier this month claiming the state doesn’t provide enough funding for public schools. Illinois doesn’t consider the other three Metro East school districts taking part in the lawsuit — Cahokia, Grant and Wood River-Hartford — at financial risk.

“It’s a little misleading,” said Cahokia Superintendent Art Ryan. “Up until a year and a half ago, give or take, we were actually in financial review, financial watch.”

“We’ve eliminated over 80 teaching positions over the last five years, cut numerous programs,” Ryan said. “We did all that to be able to stay solvent to where we didn’t reach the stage of financial takeover.”

Ryan said Cahokia cut three sports to balance its budget, and has very few arts classes left.

“At the high school level we have choir, and that’s about it. We have one art teacher,” Ryan said. “In the elementary schools, almost everywhere it’s just P.E. except there’s one art teacher at one elementary school and one music teacher at another.”

In a statement, the state education agency said it is required by statute to include all allocated funds when calculating a district’s financial risk, even though districts received payments for transportation and some special education programs six months late in FY 2016. Districts also have not received mandated categorical payments for the first three quarters of FY2017.

“Illinois school districts’ financial health has improved over the last year, but at what cost to students?” said State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith in the media release announcing its 2017 financial profiles.

“Illinois must overhaul our school funding model, which is the most inadequate and the most inequitable in the country. Every school district in the state is having to make hard choices to cover the day-to-day costs of keeping their schools’ doors open. Forcing school districts to rely primarily on taxing local property wealth to fund education inherently means the students who need the most will receive the least.”

Bethalto superintendent Jill Griffin was not immediately available for comment.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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