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Quinn's education cuts would add to schools' pain

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 6:30 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD (AP) — Illinois schools already reeling from years of budget cuts could see even bigger class sizes, more layoffs, and less money to provide meals to low-income students under a budget Gov. Pat Quinn proposed Wednesday.

Quinn's spending plan calls for more than $400 million in cuts to elementary, secondary and higher education. That would bring the total cut to K-12 education to more than $1 billion since 2008. Education officials say about two-thirds of districts already are in deficit spending and about 6,400 teachers and aides have lost their jobs.

"What we're seeing now is frustration," said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "It's not the first time (school districts) have had to make cuts; the fat is long gone. Every cut right now is painful."

Schwarm said many teachers already have received layoff notices for next year because by law teachers must be notified about the cuts at least 60 days before end of the school year. Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said some districts are considering shorter school days, shorter academic years and closing schools.

Quinn told lawmakers during his budget address that the cuts were difficult but the result of their failure to fix Illinois' $97 billion pension crisis. Making the annual payments on those public employee retirement funds — close to $7 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1 — is crowding out funding for other priorities, he said. And he warned that if they don't find a solution, within two years Illinois will spend more on pensions than education.

"As I said to you a year ago, our state cannot continue on this path," Quinn said.

According to a House staff analysis, Quinn's budget would cut about $80 million from higher education, $5.3 million from free breakfast and lunch programs for low-income kids and $150 million from the minimum per-pupil spending the state is supposed to provide school districts. That would mean districts would receive only about 82 percent of the per-pupil amount that state law says is needed to adequately fund a student's education.

Quinn maintained funding levels for early childhood education and the Illinois Monetary Award Program, which provides grants for low-income students to attend college.

Gaylord Gieseke, president of the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children, said the cuts would "further devastate school districts that are already under severe fiscal stress."

"Governor Quinn's budget proposal demonstrates that Illinois' fiscal crisis is far from over and that children, families, and communities continue to pay the price for a history of unwise fiscal decisions made by our elected officials," Gieseke said.

Illinois has the nation's most underfunded pensions, due to decades of lawmakers shorting or not making their annual payments.

The Legislature has considered proposals to fix the problem, including shifting more of the costs of teacher pensions to local school districts, asking employees to pay more and cutting or freezing cost of living adjustments for retirees. But lawmakers have been unable to reach an agreement.

Patrick Mogge, director of school and community relations for Elgin Area School District U-46, said the district won't know exactly what the impact will be until legislators pass a final budget the proposed cuts. But he said they come at a particularly bad time.

"The federal sequestration, coupled with the already reduced General State Aid for this year, and the current monies owed to us by the state, create a difficult mix," Mogge said.

____

Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano contributed to this report.

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