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Government, Politics & Issues

Court fight, funding questions leave E. St. Louis schools in limbo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2013 - The East St. Louis schools, in chronic financial straits, need $9 million to finish out the year and meet their payroll.

Despite the state’s tight financial situation, the Illinois legislature approved the money, leaving the final say up to the state board of education.

But the state board, which is engaged in a legal battle over its effort to oust the local school board and replace it with officials appointed from Springfield, did not act as expected, and the implication was that as long as local board members are fighting their removal, they won’t get the extra money from the state.

So where does that leave the district and its 6,300 students? And what happens if the money isn’t forthcoming at all? Would the school year have to end early? Would staff members go unpaid?

“This is such uncharted territory,” said Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent for East St. Louis District 189. “I’m not sure what we would do. We would have to look into short-term borrowing because we feel an obligation to our students and our employees.

“But then we would be in the situation of how would we pay it back. The reckoning comes at some point.”

When the state school board met Wednesday in Belleville, approval of the new money to the hard-pressed school district appeared to be assured. It was part of the board’s consent agenda, which typically passes with little or no discussion.

But midway through the meeting, board President Gery Chico said the item would be pulled from the consent agenda to be discussed in closed session. He later indicated it was off the table altogether, referring to the lawsuit filed by five District 189 board members following last year’s vote by the state board to remove them from their positions.

The five members won a court order that stalled their ouster, but their suit has not made much headway since last July. A hearing on the status of the action is scheduled Monday morning in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

That night, the board has called a special meeting, but the agenda gives no clue whether the lawsuit might be discussed. A similar meeting that had been called for March 19 was canceled.

Who shares the blame?

Board President Lonzo Greenwood could not be reached for comment. Board member Carl Officer, who is not a party to the suit, said he wasn’t sure what might happen with the legal action, but he does not think the state was justified in its move to oust the school board.

“We have pretty much followed their recommendations to the letter,” Officer told the Beacon, noting that the board had accepted in May 2011 an agreement to let the state oversee the district. “Then, here they are asking to remove us from our positions, which I thought was totally inappropriate.”

He said that blame for whatever financial problems the district has experienced has to be shared.

“I think the state is as responsible as the local district in the misspending of funds,” Officer said. “The state acts as if it is the gatekeeper, but everyone from the state superintendent on down knew what was going on, and they didn’t take any actions to stop it. I challenge the state superintendent to say otherwise.”

Matt Vanover, spokesman for the state department of education, said he hopes the board members who are challenging their ouster will have a change of heart.

“Our focus is on what is doing what is best for the students,” Vanover said. “Our hope with the board in East St. Louis is that we can get this lawsuit behind us and we can concentrate on what is best for students.”

He said the state has the legal authority to take a number of different actions, including the possibility of dissolving the district and having East St. Louis students attend classes in nearby schools, “but I’m not aware of that ever happening.”

Why East St. Louis?

In the plan to provide East St. Louis with the extra $9 million from the state, school officials detailed actions the district has taken in recent years to improve operations and its financial position.

Between 2010 and the current school year, the district has cut 554 positions, or 43 percent of its workforce. Two elementary schools were closed in 2011 and five more were closed last year.

Still, state school officials said, spending still is greater than District 189’s revenue, with deficits projected to grow from $3.2 million in 2012 to $19.7 million in 2014, as Illinois continues to cut state support for schools.

With only 7 percent of the district’s $122 million budget coming from local sources – far less than the state average – the continuing decline in aid from Springfield affects East St. Louis more acutely than it might affect other districts.

The shortfall in state money is having an inordinate impact in St. Clair County in general.

Information presented to the state board on Wednesday showed that the number of districts on the state’s financial watch list more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, to 45 from 17, and the number on the financial early warning list went to 67 from 37 in the same time period. Of the state’s 859 districts, two-thirds engage in deficit spending.

St. Clair County had seven districts on the list, the largest number for any county in Illinois, and three more are in both Madison and Cook counties.

The financial picture is unlikely to improve soon for schools heavily dependent on state money. In recent years, the legislature has reduced state funding for schools by $861 million, and the recommendation from Gov. Pat Quinn for the coming fiscal year would cut that even more, to 83 percent of the desired state school formula from the current 89 percent.

And less money often means fewer schools and fewer teachers. Just in recent days, Belleville has voted to cut six teachers and 20 support positions, and Chicago public schools announced the closing of 61 buildings, one of the largest mass school shutdowns in U.S. history.

With such cuts becoming more common statewide, the question has come up about why East St. Louis should receive special attention and a special infusion of $9 million, if the state board ever decides to approve the money.

Vanover notes that “districts around Illinois are experiencing significant pain, but East St. Louis has significantly greater difficulties than any of the other districts. They and a few others are really at the precipice, where they might have to lock their doors because they can’t make payroll. Their situation is extremely dire, more so than the vast number of other districts that are experiencing financial difficulties.”

Shepperd doesn’t have to hear that analysis from Springfield. When reached by the Beacon on Friday morning, the assistant superintendent was in the midst of planning for the possible reduction of as many as 75 teachers and the possible closing of two alternative schools.

Stressing that at this point, these actions are only possible, not certain, she said that nevertheless contingency plans had to be made.

“You need to do reductions in force by a certain date,” she said, “to give yourself the option. If you keep the schools open, you can always call teachers back.”

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