$9 million in emergency state funds for E. St. Louis schools put on hold | St. Louis Public Radio

$9 million in emergency state funds for E. St. Louis schools put on hold

Mar 20, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Illinois state Board of Education Wednesday tabled a move to provide $9 million in emergency state funds to the East St. Louis school district.

The money, which has already been approved by the state legislature, was originally part of the consent agenda for the board's meeting in Belleville. But it was pulled from that larger group of items so the board could discuss it separately in closed session.

Then, unexpectedly, the board decided to table the issue without a vote.

Education officials had said the East St. Louis schools, in chronic financial straits, would need the money to make its payroll for the rest of the school year. It's unclear what may happen now or when the money would have to be approved to make sure employees are paid.

The state of Illinois is ready to give East St. Louis schools a $9 million infusion of cash, but education officials see nothing but red ink ahead without drastic financial changes for the chronically troubled district.

And at the same time it is about to shore up the district’s bottom line, the state is still fighting in court to replace the schools’ elected board with a board appointed by Springfield.

At a meeting in Belleville on Wednesday, the Illinois Board of Education is expected to approve the $9 million that was already authorized by state lawmakers last month. But even with the new money and budget cuts that have been made by District 189 in recent years, spending continues to exceed revenue.

“This is emergency funding to help them remain solvent and help them finish out the school year,” Matt Vanover, spokesman for the state school board, said. “Without it, they would not be able to make payroll.”

Material prepared for state board members projected deficits growing from $3.2 million in fiscal year 2012 to $6.9 million for the current year, then $19.7 million for the next year, as continued cuts in state support are expected.

Vanover said that when a state financial oversight panel ended its relationship with the district in 2004, the school system had a fund balance between $35 million and $40 million. Now, he said the balance is gone.

“They did not take actions such as reducing staffing levels to match student enrollment,” Vanover said of the district. “They’re still trying to right-size that district and doing the things they should have been doing over several years.”

East St. Louis schools are heavily dependent on money from Springfield and Washington. About 70 percent of the district's $122 million budget comes from the state, with another 23 percent coming from federal funds and only 7 percent from local property taxes.

By comparison, the statewide average for districts is 55 percent funding from local sources, 32.5 percent from the state and 12.5 percent from Washington.

Because the district has a very low assessed valuation per student – just $17,010, compared with a statewide average of $289,272 – it needs a high tax rate just to raise the small portion of its budget that comes from local sources. The total tax rate is $10.0665; of that total, the operating tax rate is $8.0142.

The district has 6,300 students and 14 buildings. In the 2010-11 school year, East St. Louis spent $16,550 per pupil, compared with $11,664 statewide.

Academically, district students not only performed more poorly than the statewide average on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, but scores in the 2011-12 school year dropped from those the year before, on that test and on other tests administered statewide.

You can find complete district information here and here.

In 2011, the East St. Louis school district agreed to accept state oversight in the wake of chronic academic and financial problems. The original agreement called for a three-year term, renewable for another three years.

But a year later, the state school board voted unanimously to remove the elected school board and replace it with a board appointed by Christopher Koch, the state school superintendent. The move was challenged by board members, who were supported by elected officials including the city’s mayor and its representatives to the state legislature.

A day later, five of the seven district board members -- President Lonzo Greenwood, Vice President LaVondia Neely, George Mitchom, Victoria Clay and Kinnis Williams – filed suit to block the move. They won a court order and have been able to remain in their jobs, at least temporarily. A status hearing in the case is scheduled for next week.

While the turmoil about governance of the district has been going on, a new superintendent, Arthur Culver, has been working since September 2011 to try to turn the district around. The state also put a new financial oversight panel in place.

In recent years, the East St. Louis schools have cut 554 positions and closed seven elementary schools in an effort to reduce spending, and five more schools might be on the block as well as more staff cuts and elimination of programs such as music, art and athletics.

The state board also says that East St. Louis is looking into borrowing $12 million in state aid revenue notes that would have to be paid back over a 13-month period, with $1.2 million taken out of each month’s general state aid payments to make the payments.

Those potential actions come in an atmosphere of budget cutting for education in Illinois. Vanover noted that in recent years, the legislature has reduced state funding for schools by $861 million. Coupled with reduced enrollment, which also shrinks the amount of money available from the state, and lower property values, East St. Louis schools have been squeezed on all sides.

“East St. Louis has low assessed valuation,” he said, “so they rely very heavily on state and federal funds. When state funding is reduced, that impacts them greatly.”

He noted that in recent years, state money for schools has dropped to 89 percent of what the education formula calls for, and Gov. Pat Quinn’s new budget proposal would cut that further, to about 83 percent.