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School districts bracing for the worst

School buses sit in front of Sterling High School as students leave school Friday afternoon. Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett said cuts in transportation funding by the state as proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn would be "catastrophic."
School buses sit in front of Sterling High School as students leave school Friday afternoon. Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett said cuts in transportation funding by the state as proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn would be "catastrophic."

STERLING – Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett and his staff are planning for the worst in terms of state aid to the school district.

"It heightens the sense of urgency [to make changes]," he said.

The governor last week unveiled his proposed budget, which includes cuts to education, most notably general state aid and transportation funds for public schools. Critics, including many educators, argue the governor is holding education ransom to force action on pension reform.

Most districts in the Sauk Valley depend on general state aid: It makes up 25 percent to 35 percent of their revenue. The Rock Falls Elementary School District, with its low tax base, relies on the state for more than 50 percent of its funding.

Local district officials anticipated that state aid, which has decreased in the past few years, would hit an all-time low next year.

The Legislature in the past 2 years has not appropriated enough general state aid to fully fund school districts. In fiscal year 2012 (last school year), state aid was prorated at 95 percent of the amount owed to districts under a formula in state law. And in fiscal year 2013 (this school year), state aid was prorated at 89 percent.

District officials expected state aid would be prorated at 80 percent next year, a historical low. But Gov. Pat Quinn, in his budget, suggested state aid be prorated at 82 percent.

Local administrators are not breathing a sigh of relief. The 2 percent difference would not mean much for many districts.

For Rock Falls Elementary, it would mean $114,000 more than under 80 percent proration.

"The 82 percent is better than the 80 percent," Superintendent Dan Arickx said. "But we won't know what we're going to get until late summer or early fall. I'll be happy if it's 82 percent, but I'll believe it when I see it."

For Sterling, it would mean about $214,000 more.

"It's not going to make anything better," Everett said. "It still costs us state aid."

District officials still are crafting their 2013-14 budgets based on the lower aid amounts they were cautioned about at the start of the school year. They most certainly will have to make painful cuts, including staff reductions.

In Sterling – which next year will be in the final year of a vigilant 3-year budget-reduction plan that so far has slashed $1.7 million in expenses – that means about $950,000 in cuts.

"We're going to need to make significant cuts that will unfortunately impact student programs and teachers and administrators," Everett said in February. "It will be deeper this year than it has been in a long time."

For Dixon, cuts over the past few years, plus cuts next year, mean the $4.2 million surplus in the education fund will be nearly exhausted and have a projected deficit of about $2.5 million by 2014, Superintendent Michael Juenger said.

Transportation cuts 'killer'

District officials anticipated reductions in general state aid, but they were blindsided by proposed reductions in transportation funding. Quinn, in his budget, suggests transportation aid be prorated at 19 percent.

Local administrators are panicking.

Many districts in the Sauk Valley receive a significant amount of transportation aid. Districts that are geographically larger and more rural qualify for a good amount of aid because a large share of their students live more than 1.5 miles from their schools.

The state has made minimal cuts to transportation funding the past several years, and, unlike the recent cuts to general state aid, state legislators have said next to nothing about possible significant cuts to transportation aid.

"It's catastrophic," Everett said. "I'm blown away at the size of the recommended reduction."

Sterling is expected to receive $360,000 in state transportation funding this year. It would receive a fraction of that next year.

"For us, that's killer," Everett said.

"We're going to get next to nothing under that proration," Finance Director Tim Schwingle added.

The district already operates its transportation budget in a deficit; it spends about $400,000 more than its revenues every year.

"We're drawing from our reserves now, but they won't last forever," Everett said.

Sterling last year reduced bus routes, resulting in fuller buses and longer ride times. Students were leaving home before 6 o'clock in the morning and getting home after 5 o'clock at night.

But the district this year added back a route to alleviate the time crunch by about a half-hour in the morning and at night. It costs $70,000 to operate one bus route, he added.

"The question now becomes: What in the world do we do over the course of the next couple of years, if the state is not funding transportation that, by law, we have to provide for our students?" Everett said.

Morrison and Amboy have cut or combined routes over the past few years for the same reasons.

And Dixon, where a deficit in the transportation fund is almost a given, is looking at consolidating routes, putting students on the bus longer in the morning and the afternoon.

"You have to ask yourself if we are through the worst of it," Juenger said. "We don't feel we are through the worst of it yet."

Sauk Valley Media reporter Derek Barichello contributed to this story.

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