School budget crunch

by Norm Winick

Relinquishing his post at District #205 after only two years, Superintendent Gary Harrison is leaving the district in substantially worse financial shape than when he inherited it. He makes a coherent argument that it's not his fault.

''The difficulty that 205 is experiencing is the same one every district in the state is facing. It is not caused by anything we did. School financing in Illinois is a very political issue. Not less than four blue-ribbon committees in the last decade have looked at the issue and not solved it. The legislature knows that school funding is broken. The dilemma is that all the committees have arrived at the same finding of fact and the same solution and the legislature keeps dismissing it.''

''Sixty-one percent of districts admit to being in a deficit situation; we think it's closer to 70 percent. Some are bankrupt. Carpentersville had to issue $21 million in tax anticipation warrants just to survive. This is the worst financial crisis schools have been in in the history of the state. Districts in areas with property tax caps are especially hard hit.''

''Illinois is unique in that we have three divisions in the state, Chicago, the collar areas and downstate. Every fix says the burden must be shifted to the income taxes from the property taxes." Former Governor Jim Edgar eventually came to that conclusion -- even after he had lambasted one of his opponents, Dawn Clark Netsch for arguing that during her campaign.'

Harrison added: ''I've even heard politicians attribute the crisis to 9-11. that's not really a major factor at all. There is great hope among school administrators all over the state that there will be some discussion toward that end.''

''School finance is a scripted process. Contrary to popular belief, there is little local discretion. No entity in the nation is more regulated and tightly-watched than school funding. Eighty-five percent of the school district's budget is people. Galesburg has a good, low administrator-to-student ratio. There is not a whole lot of flexibility. About the only place you can be creative is applying for grants. Our investments have bottomed out like everyone else's. Arbitrage is illegal.''

''We do spend a little more money than average on some ancillary services -- most notably to address a perceived drug and alcohol problem. Whether it's really a problem, I don't know. We have four outreach workers, two police officers, life-skills instruction, an even start program. Studies have shown that the D.A.R.E. program doesn't work but this guy [me] isn't going to get rid of it.''

''This is a $50 million operation. We have 5,000 clients we see on a daily basis. We're by far the largest restaurant in town. We manage 15 facilities.''

''Districts that have no reserves are in deep trouble now. Galesburg had, as of last year, $17 million in the bank. Last year we 'lost' $788,000. This year it will be close to $1.2 million. Next year, if nothing changes, we're projecting a $2 million shortfall. If nothing changes, we can get through fiscal year 2005.''

''We are looking at reallocating some of our resources, some 'right-sizing,' but I will not recommend anything to my successor. We are pledged to not impact the classroom. We will look at next year as another bump in the road -- albeit a hazardous one. We'll give the new governor a chance to fix the problem. Part of the problem is that I think we, school administrators, have cried 'wolf' so long it's difficult for the general population to take us seriously.''

Harrison acknowledges that there are some other challenges facing the new superintendent. ''Funding is really a state issue. The district has always been conservative. Our tax rate and spending per child is the second lowest among large unit districts in Illinois. A more important issue is the quality of our schools. That is the number one selling point to business and industry in a community's economic development efforts. People will not move into a community with bad schools.''

''When you compare successes of District 205 to richer, more affluent districts in the state, we fare very well. Out of 45 'Golden Spike' schools in all of Illinois, two of them, King and Nielson, are in Galesburg. Cooke is on the watch list but it's not their fault; their community is just so transient. The new superintendent will have to address that some way.''

Harrison is not sold on President George Bush's ''No Child Left Behind'' program. ''I tend to call it 'No Child Left Untested.' The basic concept that schools must do something for kids who have been left out of the loop is good but testing every third-eighth grader every year has some pitfalls. You can't judge schools that way. Every class is made up of different kids. We should measure the child, not the school or the class. These numbers are being used to require that schools show a gain. The Illinois Math and Science Academy will be on their watch list because they can't show improvement; that's ridiculous. I was at a conference and I asked an administration official how many educators helped draft this 'No Child Left Behind' legislation. I was told 'none.' Now, it makes sense.''

Before he came to Galesburg from Kewanee Wethersfield, Harrison indicated that he ruled on a more flexible, case-by-case basis. He admits he was disappointed in the response he got -- mostly from parents. ''They expect every child to receive the same punishment for the same offense despite any extenuating circumstances. The bigger you are, the more they cry 'foul' when you deal with students on an individual basis; I had not faced that before. I was able to write some flexibility into our codes of conduct and I am proud of that.''

''I was surprised at how long it takes to implement a change. You don't have a grasp of the collateral damage during the decision-making. In my old job, I could just change things.''

''The new superintendent needs to stay the course, be proactive and protect the well-being of our educational program. We have a premier relationship with Carl Sandburg and Knox colleges and all three we top administrators agree that we need to develop a new role for the technology center. When it was built, students and businesses didn't all have their own computers and in house facilities. I have brought some technological innovations to 205, too.''

''Their are some things the community needs to address, too. There's an elitist attitude in town about what schools are better; it's wrong and that needs to change.''

The impact of Maytag's decision to leave Galesburg is an unknown facing the district. ''I've been getting data from the principals and I've been surprised at how low the number is of kids who will be directly affected. I think many of the workers live out of town. It's also possible that many are older and don't have kids in school any more.''

While emphasizing that quality education is important to a community's economic development, Harrison does believe in 'enterprise zones' despite the financial costs to schools. Overall, more employment and more people generate higher property taxes eventually. I am not sold on T.I.F. districts. None of that money comes back to school districts. What really upsets me are those companies that milk an enterprise zone and then leaves.''

Another aspect of the financial crunch can be traced to Special Education. ''Special ed has never been funded at the 40 percent level it's supposed to be. If it wasn't for Special Ed, the district would be in a surplus. It's the biggest unfunded mandate in the state. Special ed kids are our 'village;' we should take care of them by sharing the costs. There are some who argue that if we'd fix special ed, we'd fix the entire school funding crisis. Twenty percent of the school-age population is in special ed or a 504 program. It's growing and growing. '

''I look at schools like marathon. At the start, everybody is at the same place. At the end, they're spread out. That's a good model for pedagogy.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr website November 18, 2002

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