Grants, per pupil money may be cut in Illinois

Melissa Leu

 Illinois school districts may soon get the answer to their multi-million-dollar question: Exactly how much money are they getting from the state?

As the Illinois Legislature rushes to beat the budget deadline, lawmakers in the Illinois House are eyeing cuts to the majority of grants for local schools. General state aid also may be trimmed to make the House' $6.9 billion school spending goal.

State Rep Will Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, said the state has to cut from schools, but lawmakers are limited in what can be cut. Although a good portion of the budget has been decided, Davis is staying mum on exact numbers.

"We're kind of faced with a lot of, 'Well, I don't want to touch that. No we can't touch that, no we can't do that,'  and unfortunately if you add up all of the grant lines it won't get you close to $230 million," Davis said.

At the moment, the House's primary and secondary education budget still is more than $230 million higher than its allotted budget, said Davis, who noted that he can't cut mandated categories without risking federal matching money. Mandated categories cover everything from school buses and special education to free and reduced price breakfast and lunch programs.

That leaves the grants.

State grants subsidize a variety of programs, including state testing, vocational programs and bilingual education.

The Illinois State Board of Education receives about $548 million in grants annually, said Matt Vanover, spokesman for ISBE, who noted the elimination of many grants in recent years.

“The vast majority of (funding) has been in the form of grants that we used to have. Currently, though, the number of what we consider (as) grants has been reduced,” Vanover said.

Christopher Norman, director of financial services for Alton School District, said he’s seen safety and reading improvement grants completely eliminated in the past two years. This year, he said he worries most about grants for early childhood education and truancy prevention programs, which amount to more than $1.25 million.

"I can't disagree… that (we need cuts). I think everybody understands the situation the state is in,” Norman said. “For me, I would just like to see the Legislature come up with a reasonable figure for a budget and set a budget that is realistic.”

Without state aid, schools face two alternatives — eliminate programs altogether or fund them on their own.

At Jacksonville School District, about 34 percent of the district’s $35 million budget comes from state aid. Without state grants, the district would have to eliminate early childhood education and reduce vocational programs, said Superintendent Les Huddle.

“It'd be another one of those things where if we decided to keep our programs, (we'd) be dipping into our pockets and our bank accounts to keep those programs and activities for the students,” Huddle said.

Jacksonville receives about $1 million in state grants for early childhood programs and $20,000 in state grants for vocational education.

Alton School District could face a similar situation.

“We would most likely restructure our administration at the high school to meet (students’) needs, and what that means is less people doing more work,” Norman said.

Davis quelled fears by saying that it's not likely that grants will be zeroed out completely, but the House can only get to the budget goal through a combination of cuts from grants and general state aid.

"General state aid is the support, in my case, poorer school districts — districts that don't have a lot of property wealth. That's what it was created to do, provide additional resources to poorer school districts," Davis said.

Davis hinted that a final education spending plan may be complete by the end of the week.  The House has set a deadline to vote on May 6.