Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ISBE: School districts struggling to keep their doors open

By Jamey Dunn

 Some Illinois schools are considering moving to four-day weeks to cope with budget cuts, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Only one school district, Meridian CUSD 101 in Mounds, has taken the steps to officially pursue a waiver to move to a four-day school week. But state officials say that the idea and other seemingly drastic options are on the table in many districts that are struggling with recent cuts and trying to plan for possible future ones. Christopher Koch, state superintendent, said that suburban districts have been calling the Illinois State Board of Education and inquiring about shortening their school weeks. “I think the problem is they’re without options, and they’re looking at what can [they] do to keep the doors open. And how quickly can they do it. These are real discussions that districts and boards are having across the state. ... It’s astonishing to be getting these requests, but that’s demonstrating what’s happening now,” said Koch. “It’s not only four-day school weeks, it’s high class size ratios, so you have a lot more students per teacher. You have all kinds of personnel being laid off across the state. [School] board after [school] board are approving that. It’s a number of things that are occurring that are no doubt going to erode the quality of instruction taking place.”

In its Fiscal Year 2014 proposed budget, the state board is requesting an increase of $874 million from the current fiscal year. According to the ISBE, pre-K through 12 education has been cut by $861 million since FY 2009. The board says general state aid to schools has been reduced by 7 percent, more than $320 million, since FY 2009.

Under Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget proposal for next fiscal year, K-12 education would be cut by more than $275 million from current fiscal year levels. Quinn has called for early childhood education to be spared from cuts. Quinn says the reductions are needed because of the growing costs associated with the state’s underfunded pension system. The state’s required pension contribution this year was nearly $6 billion. “Skyrocketing pension obligations leave our state with no choice but to continue reductions to our core priorities,” Quinn said in his budget speech last week.

Gery Chico, chair of the ISBE, said leaders in the state “have got to challenge the premise” that education must be cut under the next state budget. “That’s not the discussion. That shouldn’t be the discussion. That’s not what a great state’s about,” he said. “There’s not just one way to raise additional money, through pension [benefits] reduction. There’s other ways to raise money. And we need to have all those things on the table so that we don’t talk about four-day school weeks, we don’t talk about 40-plus-kid class sizes or more, we don’t talk about eliminating fundamental programs in schools.”


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