Thursday, March 24, 2011

Regional superintendents dispute proposed elimination

By Jamey Dunn

Regional superintendents say that if their offices are eliminated, they don’t know who will offer the services they provide, which are required by law.

Gov. Pat Quinn proposed to eliminate the Regional Offices of Education in his budget plan. He estimates the move would save about $13 million. However, superintendents say eliminating their operations would not justify the savings. The say they have been responsible with state money, operating on a flat budget for more than the last five years. “That [$13 million] may not sound like a whole lot of money, and frankly it isn’t. But for everything that we do, it’s a ton of money. … This is [a] cut that really doesn’t add up,” said Gil Morrison, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools and a regional superintendent in DeKalb County.

Regional Offices of Education offer mandated services, such as teacher certification, building inspections, employee background checks and other support services to schools and districts. They also provide professional development opportunities, such as workshops that teachers are required to take to keep their certification and mentoring programs for new teachers and principals. Regional superintendents administer alternative schools for children facing challenges in the traditional system or who may have been expelled for truancy or behavioral issues.

Kay Pangle, regional superintendent for the Iroquois Kankakee Regional Office of Education, said that regional offices brought in $135 million in federal dollars and other funds last fiscal year. “That’s a pretty good return on investment - one that you’re not going to get in the stock market, I think.”

Pangle said that many of the things that Regional Offices of Education handle for local districts and schools are required by laws approved by the General Assembly, so it would be unfair to pass those costs on to local governments. “It seems only prudent that the state would be the one to bear the cost of providing those services. No one at the local level should have to provide that money to provide those services [required] by the state legislature,” she said.

Ralph Grimm, superintendent of West Central School District in Biggsville, said local districts that are losing staff because of budget cuts and coping with late payments from the state while also trying to fulfill requirements of reform efforts need the support of regional administrators. “Who will do the work of the regional superintendents and their staff on behalf of our children if these offices are eliminated?” Grimm asked. “I haven’t heard yet who’s going to step up and take care of those responsibilities. All public schools are doing more with less, as we have dealt with the state’s inability to pay what it owes us. We are all working with smaller staffs. ….We are in a time when we are asked to do more and more and more: accountability, assessment, certified teacher evaluation, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top … with fewer and fewer resources.”

State Superintendent Christopher Koch said eliminating the offices would be a blow to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), as well. “There’s all kinds of work they do with certification. They run schools, alternative schools and truancy alternative schools. They do all sorts of compliance reviews for us at the state board. So it would be a significant loss for us as well,” he told RFD radio after Quinn’s budget address. ISBE’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 recommended a $2 million increase for the regional offices.

Before Quinn pitched his budget proposal, members of his staff laid out two possible alternatives for the regional offices. They said that ISBE might take up some of their functions or local districts would have to pick up the slack. Since staffing levels at ISBE have shrunk from 800 employees in 2000 to 500 today, it seems unlikely that the agency would be able to pick up the bulk of the regional office’s duties.

Kelly Kraft, spokesperson for Quinn’s budget office, said the concept of eliminating the regional offices was a “budget proposal” they put forth. She said a commission proposed by the governor to research a school district consolidation plan, which also proposed in his budget, would look at the issue and weigh the details. Kraft said it is possible that local governments would have to foot the bill for the regional offices if they find them valuable. “If local districts still want to have the regional superintendents, then local districts would need to take up that funding,” she said. That would mean the districts would pay for requirements such as background checks on employees that are mandated by the legislature.

David Vaught, Quinn’s budget director, said during a budget briefing in January that in light of the state’s deficit and billions in overdue bills, the administration had to make some difficult spending choices. He said education cuts to administration and transportation would allow for increases in areas of higher priority, such as early childhood education.

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