State behind in school payments

February 17, 2010 4:33:13 AM PST
The state of Illinois is more than $650 million behind in payments to schools. Some schools are posting messages on their outdoor signs, hoping to persuade state lawmakers to make sure districts get money they've been owed for months.The state is so far behind some suburban school districts are taking out loans.

Chicago Public School officials are considering making cuts to bilingual classes and after school programs.

The state tells schools to provide things like special education, transportation and hot meals. Schools do so, and then submit vouchers to Springfield for reimbursement. Since the state is basically broke, schools aren't getting their money.

It's a problem so simple, any first grader can understand: the state essentially bought more than it can pay for.

"Don't we teach our children to fulfill the promises they make?" said Jim Rydland, West Aurora school superintendent.

The state of Illinois currently owes the West Aurora school district $4 million. Last year, it was more than twice that.

The school took out a loan, and taxpayers are now stuck with $200,000 in interest payments. That money, the school superintendent says, could have paid for nearly four teachers.

"Do I need to turn the state over to a bill collector?" said Rydland.

Some schools are trying the tactic of public humiliation. This week, Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville and other schools in the Indian Prairie District began displaying signs that say "the state owes us $7.8 million."

Thornton Township High School is owed $2.5 million. Wheaton is owed $3.4 million. The state is $2 million behind in payments to Arlington Heights District 59. Carpentersville schools are owed $5.8 million.

For Chicago Public Schools, the state has delayed payments totaling more than $172 million.

A CPS spokesperson says the state's status as a deadbeat has administrators considering cutting all bilingual programs, sports and after school activities.

At Perez Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood students who primarily speak Spanish gradually learn English along with reading, writing and math over several years. Killing the program means kids would be diverted to classrooms where English is the only language spoken.

"I think any budget cuts to bilingual will devastate the gains we've been making year after year improving our test scores," said Vicki Kleros, Perez Elementary principal.

A spokesperson for Gov. Pat Quinn says he's looking at ways to speed up payments to schools, but concedes it's a cash flow problem not easily fixed.

Educators are watching another painful proposition being floated in Springfield, one that would cut the state's basic funding per student by nearly 10 percent next year.

The State Board of Education has a Web site where payments to every school district can be tracked. Find out how much Illinois owes your school district at