ARGENTA – Nearly $1 million in back pay and an extra $200,000 a year for the future are on their way to Argenta-Oreana schools after a state mix-up sent the money to Decatur instead.
Since at least fiscal year 2014, some 229 students who live in the Argenta-Oreana district have been counted as Decatur students for the purposes of the state poverty grant, Superintendent Damian Jones said. The grant pays school districts an extra portion of general state aid for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Since the mistake was discovered, Argenta-Oreana schools will receive a check for $942,000 this month from the state. Jones credited state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, with helping to resolve the issue.
“We've believed basically forever that something was wrong, and previous administrations had tried to get the ball rolling, and we had even explored mapping. But until I was able to get Sen. Rose to really assist us and open doors we'd have never been able to open ourselves, nothing happened,” Superintendent Damian Jones said. “We always suspected it was mapping, crediting our students to Decatur, and that's exactly what it was.”
Decatur won't have to pay back the money it received in error, said Todd Covault, chief operational officer for Decatur schools. But in the future, he said it could mean the loss of more than $200,000 annually for the district.
Covault said he is still working on figuring out the full effect that losing those funds will have on Decatur's future budgets, as the poverty grant formula is complex.
Jones said it appeared that an incorrect map was used to determine the number of students for each district who qualified for free and reduced lunches, a component of calculating the poverty grant.
Jones said the Argenta-Oreana district will receive an estimated $200,000 more a year going forward, which he called a “game-changer.” The money coming this month, plus the money in the future, will allow for some facilities improvements and staffing additions.
Argenta-Oreana's annual budget for the current fiscal year is $9.6 million, and the education fund is $6 million of that, so the percentage of the budget overall isn't that great, Jones said, but after years of underfunding, it's a boon.
As Rose and Jones were working on this problem, Rose said, he was insistent that Decatur's schools should not have to pay back the misdirected funds.
“I made it very clear,” he said. “You screwed this up decades ago, but it wouldn't be fair to claw that money back from (Decatur schools).”
The areas in question are the Camelot neighborhood, Wilder Haven and the area south of Mound Road on Decatur's northeast side. Those areas have Decatur zip codes, Jones said, as do several other areas where Argenta-Oreana students live, and that may have contributed to the confusion. A map provided by the Macon County Clerk's Office to the Herald & Review and to Jones concurs that those areas are in the Argenta-Oreana district.
Jones said it took 18 months from the time he first suspected a problem to the resolution, and without Rose's help, it might never have been resolved.
“He truly went to bat for the students of A-O," Jones said of Rose.
Rose gave credit to Jones and his team for their persistence in getting their questions answered and the situation resolved.
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“It was part treasure hunt and part detective story,” Rose said. “It was started with a hunch that something wasn't right in the state aid breakdown, and that wasn't easy because of the variables in the state aid formula.”
Jones knew how many students in Argenta-Oreana qualified for free and reduced lunch, and he knew the numbers didn't add up, Rose said, and after months of work, it finally boiled down to the maps having not been updated for years, possibly as many as 50 years.
One bump in the road was that the University of Illinois at Chicago had a grant to geocode the state maps and bring them up to date, and the person in charge of that project had retired.
“When that person went away, literally nobody knew how to decipher or input or change the codes,” Rose said.
The Illinois Department of Transportation had maps, too, because keeping information on roadways is its role, but it turned out the most current and correct maps were in the Macon County clerk's and the tax assessor's hands. Those have been updated annually.
To update the geocodes with the state records, somebody had to manually input every address in the neighborhoods in question, and then go back through school records to determine which houses were the homes of Argenta-Oreana students and which of those students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Rose was stunned when he learned Friday how much back funding Argenta-Oreana was going to receive.
“Holy cow,” Rose said. “We've been to every agency, every entity you can imagine trying to figure out this puzzle.”
He said he has been asked if this could have happened to other districts, and he thinks it's possible.
“You'd think by now more would have stepped forward (if they had suspicions),” Rose said. “I think this story is going to make superintendents go back and look at their numbers.”
Most of the state's school districts are more than 100 years old, he said, and in recent years when districts have consolidated, the geomaps are uploaded and the computers take it from there. But with older districts, the old maps may still be in use.
The theory that Jones and Rose came up with, but have no proof, is that when Camelot and Wilder Haven were built, those areas were swapped to the Argenta-Oreana school district and the state records were never updated with that information.
The Illinois State Board of Education acknowledged the IDOT map used to calculate the low-income student numbers was outdated.
“ISBE, the Department of Human Services and other state agencies have coordinated on a correction to Argenta-Oreana Unit District 1’s General State Aid supplemental low-income grant. The map used to match low-income students to the appropriate school district did not match the district’s actual boundaries,” said spokeswoman Jaclyn Matthews. “Local authorities are responsible for informing the appropriate state agency of any changes to boundary maps. In this situation, the map provided to DHS was outdated.”
The updated map will be used going forward, Matthews said, and state law allowed the recalculation of claims for the previous three years.