WIUM Tristates Public Radio

School Superintendents Warn of Bleak Futures

May 20, 2016

School districts across Illinois are worried about whether they will receive state funding for  next school year.  They say without the state support, teachers and other employees could lose their jobs, programs could be cut, and some schools might close their doors.

Superintendents from nine western Illinois school districts addressed those concerns and more during a forum this week in Knoxville.  The districts are in Henderson, Knox, Mercer, and Warren Counties and are served by the same Regional Office of Education.

Around 250 people showed up for the forum, including students, school board members, and other community members.

Joe Sornberger, who is superintendent of the ROWVA School District that includes five small communities in Knox County (Rio, Oneida, Wataga, Victoria, and Altona) told the crowd that his district receives around $1.2 million in state funding. If the district doesn’t receive that amount, it would have to close its doors and that would have a drastic affect on small town life.

"No Friday night lights. No FFA pork burgers. No ROWVA band. Our budget for the high school is $1.1 million dollars. By not receiving that money, we would have eliminated ROWVA High School, and all the traditions that go with it,” Sornberger said.

ROWVA Superintendent Joe Sornberger says his school board has done the best job keeping what programs they can, but it may not be possible to overcome it much longer without state funding.
Credit T.J. Carson

The situation is not as dire for other districts, though they would still suffer to some extend. Monmouth-United Superintendent Jeff Whitsitt said his district can get through all of next year even without state funding, but that would require using all of the district’s reserves. And it would be a challenge to get the children to school.

“We spend about a million dollars a year just transporting our kids. Our property taxes only account for about $200,000 of that. The rest of that is through state reimbursement, through state funding, through state categoricals. So our problem won’t necessarily be having teachers and a classroom to get into. It’ll be getting our kids there and home to do that,” Whitsitt said.

Another concern was raised by the superintendents of the West Central and Abingdon-Avon Districts, who said shared special services could be in jeopardy if neighboring schools close.  In addition, sports teams would have fewer opponents to play if nearby schools closed.

Galesburg Superintendent Ralph Grimm pointed out the problems will extend beyond the classroom if the state fails to provide money for K-12 schools.  He said around 72% of students in his district come from low-income families, and the quality of life for those children could be at risk if schools close.

“Where will they eat breakfast and lunch on those days we’re not in school? For many of those kids, if they don’t eat with us, they don’t eat," Grimm said. "Where will they go to ensure that they are safe and supervised properly while their parents are at work? I fear that many of our students will be home alone, with no supervision."

The Galesburg School District  is already taking big steps to reduce costs. The district in February made around $2.6 million in cuts to its budget. But Grimm said even with the cuts, the district can only last until January on reserves and local revenues.

After all nine superintendents told their stories and explained potential struggles, Regional Office of Education Superintendent Jodi Scott took the podium. She urged people in the crowd to share the superintendents'  stories and concerns with decision makers in the capital.

“Don’t stop with your local people, but go all the way to the top and talk to our legislative leaders. And make sure they hear your stories, and make sure they understand how a budget impasse is going to affect our students in this region,” Scott said.

Scott said the forum was good in that it set a clear message about what could happen if the state fails to fund school districts next fiscal year, which begins July 1.  But she was unsure if it would be enough to sway the minds of the politicians who will decide whether Illinois begins another year without a budget.