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Illinois sends schools checks on time, a rare move

CHICAGO (AP) – Illinois schools have received promised grant payments from the state on time for the first time since 2007 – but in another sign of the state’s precarious financial situation, a top education official has warned schools not to expect the pleasant surprise to become a permanent habit.

The state cited higher income and sales tax revenues and court settlement proceeds among the factors in having the funds available.

“While this is exciting news for districts, the comptroller’s office said this is the result of several unique circumstances and that districts should not expect to receive all payments on time next year,” State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch wrote in the July 1 letter to superintendents around the state.

All-purpose state aid – money used to offset the basic cost of educating students – has been paid on time in recent years, but grants and other funding for items such as transportation, technical classes and special education have been lumped into the state’s backlog of unpaid bills, with schools often waiting months for promised funds.

Schools from Antioch to Anna have raised local property taxes to offset the shortage in funds in some cases, and instituted cuts in others.

Waiting on more than $65,000 in the spring of 2013 in promised state funding for transportation costs, Knoxville School District Superintendent Steve Wilder said the 1,600-student central Illinois district reduced teaching positions and modified class schedules to share staff more efficiently in order to compensate.

“With a district our size that much money goes a long way,” Wilder said. “Had the board not made [cuts] like that, we would have been in the red this year.”

Elgin Unit District, a 40,000-student district in the Chicago suburbs, has been short as much as $18 million from the state in transportation funding in years past. The district shifted money from its other funds and was cutting neighborhood bus routes for high schoolers to plug the hole.

Because of conservative budgeting and unexpected windfalls in revenues, the state’s backlog of unpaid bills stood at $4.5 billion as of Tuesday, according to the comptroller’s office. That’s down from nearly $10 billion in 2010.

“Coming off the tax season, tax revenues came in better than expected and we were able to aggressively pay down bills,” comptroller’s office spokesperson Sara Wojcicki Jimenez said.

Social service providers are still waiting on promised funds, however. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois is currently owed $10.5 million from the state, with payments averaging about 2 months behind schedule over the last year, spokeswoman Barb Hailey said.

This year, the state brought in approximately $1.3 billion more than was budgeted, a happenstance budget experts describe as more of an anomaly than anything else.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability notes in a June report that revenue came from a combination of increased income and sales tax revenues, deposits of court settlement proceeds and prior overpayments to the State University’s Retirement System, according to the report.

Next year’s $35.7 billion budget – signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last week – has drawn criticism for using accounting maneuvers and putting off crucial decisions about where to find revenue until after the November election.

“I definitely won’t build our [district] budget in the mindset that we’re going to get all those payments,” Wilder said.

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