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In Plainfield’s elementary schools, first-grade students who are having trouble learning to read get intensive attention from a teacher: one-on-one time every school day until they have caught up (which usually takes from 12 to 20 weeks). Evidence that those kids go on to do better academically because of this “reading recovery” program “is overwhelming,” says John Harper, the superintendent of Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202, about 40 miles southwest of the Loop. “They not only exit the program reading at first-grade level, but they maintain that for second and later grades.”

Despite that success, this year fewer Plainfield students will have access to the reading program—about 330 kids, as opposed to 440 last year. The program is very expensive, Harper says, and in the midst of the state’s school-funding meltdown, Plainfield has had to cut back on reading recovery teachers by 50 percent, from 29 to 17. “I anticipate that a year from now our reading recovery program will be eliminated,” Harper says.

Cuts in the program came only after the school district had pared costs virtually everywhere else—including trimming the number of guidance counselors, reducing the amount of the district’s contribution to employees’ health insurance plans, and limiting the frequency of landscape maintenance—to deal with its diminished operating budget, which shrank from $250 million to a projected $241 million this year. “This is without a doubt the most challenging year in [public] education in Illinois,” Harper says—and he and many others educators expect next year to be worse, unless Springfield finds a way to repair the state’s notoriously fouled-up budget situation.

The state’s costs, in particular its paralyzing pension obligations, continue to rise while the recession tamps down revenue. “Illinois ended the [fiscal] year in the worst fiscal position in its history,” the state comptroller, Dan Hynes, reported in July. The state’s unpaid bills came to over $4.7 billion, a 69 percent increase from the previous year. It’s not a new problem: As noted by the authors of a report for the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, “worldwide economic difficulties have exposed a budget crisis in Illinois that has its roots in past decades.” The report goes on to point out that state leaders have consistently failed to attack long-term funding problems with anything more than short-term patches. 

This year, many of the patches gave way at once. Illinois stopped paying its bills, and school districts suddenly stopped getting the financial support on which their budgets were predicated. “There’s not time to run out and pass a referendum [so you can] make up the difference right away, even if you could get voters to support it,” says Peter Traczyk, the school board president of Oak Park Elementary School District 97. “It’s not like an individual canceling cable the day he loses his job. We have contracts with teachers [and] mandates from governments.”

In June, at the end of the fiscal year, the State of Illinois owed $5.4 million to District 97. The district froze spending, and the board’s finance committee recommended a hiring and wage freeze for the coming year. Similar scenarios unfolded across the state as school districts—not to mention public universities, health agencies, and other state-supported programs—lopped off big chunks of their budgets to survive. As it turns out, Oak Park is among the luckier districts. Because it’s relatively wealthy in property taxes, only 9.7 percent of its operating expenses comes—or is supposed to come—from the state. In contrast, lower-income Hazel Crest, in the south suburbs, relies on the state for 33.9 percent of its expenses. But even the well-off districts are being squeezed. “Another year of this and we’ll be cutting some serious academic programs,” says John Perdue, the superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 89, which serves parts of Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, and Lombard.

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In addition to increasing class sizes and making big cuts in academic programs, many school districts are pinching pennies. “We’ve nickel-and-dimed every single pocket of the budget,” says Lynn Krizic, the superintendent of Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205, which had to eliminate its world language program for second-grade students (the district did keep the program for students in third through fifth grades). Cuts also included switching from paper paychecks to direct deposit and discouraging the use of printed paper when an Internet alternative is available—all of which add up to an annual savings of at least $40,000. “That may not sound like much [in a $107.7 million budget],” Krizic says, “but it equals one staff position we don’t [have to] eliminate.”

The nickel-and-dime approach has led some districts to take a closer look at their priorities. District 89 has created an informal energy-savings plan that, among other things, prompts Perdue to encourage guests in his office to sit near a window—his lights stay off whenever there is adequate daylight. But sometimes even innovative solutions demand a second look. Last May in Waukegan, the District 60 school board considered eliminating 16 of 27 school nurse positions. Not so fast, said a group of nurses. Research shows that schoolchildren attended to by a nurse get sent home much less frequently than kids who are seen by other staff members. Having an adequate number of nurses keeps attendance figures up, which results in more state aid. In the end, the district cut only ten nurses.

Some districts are congratulating themselves for having made recent improvements that will help them through the next few years. In District 89, voters approved a bond referendum by a two-thirds margin in February 2007—just ahead of the economy’s downturn. (“A month later, we might not have gotten it passed,” says Perdue.) The referendum made possible a $24.8 million investment in the technology and infrastructure at the district’s five schools. With new cable wiring in all buildings, ceiling-mounted LCD projectors in every classroom, energy-efficient replacement roofs and windows, more efficient heating and air conditioning, and even repaired parking lots, the district got its house in order. “It pushed us out easily to 13 to 15 years before the district would have to be concerned again,” Perdue says.

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With no sign that legislators will get the state’s budget in order anytime soon, where do school districts go from here? “We’re all going to have to learn not to rely on the State of Illinois for anything, at least for a couple of years,” says Elmhurst’s Krizic. Doing that, she acknowledges, will almost certainly mean districts will have to shift some of the financial burden to parents. Elmhurst students used to participate in most extracurricular clubs for free, although they paid to play sports. Last school year, the district instituted a $10 fee for participation in any club, including music and choir, from kindergarten through 12th grade. This came after a survey indicated that most parents were willing to pay rather than see clubs eliminated.

“Parents were very agreeable to the idea of adding fees,” says Pat Masterton, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance. Krizic adds, “They wanted us to figure out ways to continue to provide what we provide—and they wanted to help.” User fees, already a common budget prop for park districts and other public institutions around Illinois, may also become more common as school districts look for substitutes for state funding.

Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, a school-reform advocacy group, says that systemic changes will be needed as well—and that includes more flexibility in firing. At least 80 percent of a school district’s budget goes to salaries for teachers and other professionals, and state statutes tightly control how a district can reduce its staffing levels. Essentially, cuts in staff are linked to seniority: The newest teachers must be the first let go, unless otherwise agreed to in collective bargaining. When determining whom to lay off and whom to keep, Steans and others would prefer an approach that, in addition to seniority, factors in a teacher’s proven effectiveness and his or her contributions to extracurricular activities.

Also potentially up for grabs as school districts—and the State of Illinois—get further in the hole will be pensions for teachers and administrators, an area that used to be sacrosanct. Farther down the line, small, hyperlocal school districts might find the only way to survive is to merge with neighbors. Several have already merged bus service, purchasing, and other noncurricular services to leverage better prices; an all-out merger is a rational way to reduce the administrative salary load.

All of this is in the future, but given Springfield’s seeming inability to move and the way money problems tend to breed more money problems, there is no telling how far off that future is. Many school administrators are holding their breath this year, fingers crossed that they don’t have to make the bigger cuts they have been postponing. “This is a time of hardship and uncertainty, when all the problems are compounding,” says Steans. “Nobody is going to come through it unscathed.”