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General Assembly schools

The General Assembly is on the cusp of a third year without a budget and public schools are concerned about staying open next school year.

DECATUR — Without a state budget, quiet classrooms won't be a good thing come fall.

As Illinois enters its third fiscal year without a budget, publicly funded entities like schools are looking at a bleak future. Without state money, some schools may not make it through another year.

Public schools in particular are largely dependent on state dollars to function, from paying staff to keeping utilities on, and unlike last year, when the General Assembly didn't come up with a budget but appropriated funding for public education, no such appropriation has been made this time.

Decatur schools can only continue to operate with funds on hand and anticipated property tax payments through October, said Todd Covault, chief operational officer.

“We're putting a team together for analysis,” Covault said. “We have some options, moving funds that are in transportation and operations and maintenance. We're looking at all the options and just trying to plan ahead. It'll be complicated.

"With the number of staff we have, we just won't be able to have school at some point, if there are no state funds.”

June property tax revenue, he said, would normally have already been invested to bring in even more revenue, but the district doesn't dare do that, because those funds might be needed.

Another worry is the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows all the kids in high-poverty districts to get school breakfasts and lunches at no cost to students' families. That program could be in jeopardy.

Covault is also concerned about revenues from the Macon County's 1 percent sales tax devoted to school facilities. The district depends on those funds to pay off bonds, but that money goes to the state first, before being sent back to individual schools.

And then there's Robertson Charter School. The way a charter school works is, its fiscal agent, which in this case is the Decatur School District, collects its general state aid from the state and pays it to the charter school based on the number of students in the school.

“That's due in July,” Covault said. “We're struggling with how do we pay them, when we don't have revenues coming in. That's part of what we're reviewing, reviewing the contract to see if we have an obligation to pay them now or if we can wait until the state assures us of funding.”

Decatur school board Vice President Beth Nolan said the district can't expect employees to work for free, and with no funding, there would be no choice but to shut down.

"The (state's) bond rating going to junk status is going to really hinder our ability to do business and to take on any kind of projects and to have the cash to be able to operate day-to-day working. Without us being able to raise funds through the sale of bonds, that's a problem," Nolan said.

"It's going to cost us a lot more in interest rates and whether anyone's going to buy our debt to create that cash," she continued. "It's frightening. This is a scary time. We are fortunately in a good enough position to be able to open the doors at the beginning of the year, and we'll be able to last a month or so. But the thought of not being able to educate 9,000 kids and employ almost 2,000 employees, it's scary." 

Meridian School District could last a bit longer than Decatur. Superintendent Dan Brue estimated the middle of January is when their funds will run out if no state money comes into the coffers.

“That's using all our reserves and all the local tax revenues we received this school year,” Brue said. “To go all year long, we'd have to do a tax anticipation warrant or issue a bond of some sort to fund the rest of the year.”

He had not considered the possibility that the facility tax payments from Macon County might also be in question, he said, but that could create difficulty.

Those bond payments are due in December and June, and a school district is required by law to set their property tax levy in December, long before the school board knows how much state funding will be forthcoming.

Macon County schools have traditionally abated property taxes equivalent to their share of the 1 percent facilities tax, using that tax to pay back bonds. If that revenue is caught up in the state's budget mess, they might have no choice but to find money to pay bonds elsewhere.

DeAnn Heck, superintendent of Central A&M schools, said her district has enough reserves to complete the upcoming school year and a couple of months beyond that. The current crisis has been coming on for several years, she said, not just the three years when Illinois hasn't had a budget.

“It's a very frightening situation we're in,” Heck said. “I know all the superintendents have talked to their communities. We're in dire straits at this point. I hope the general public understands that.

"It's really difficult, and I can't believe we're here. It's kind of surrealistic.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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