SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn is withholding $52 million in transportation payments for Illinois’ cash-strapped schools so he can use that money instead to get the most out of federal Medicaid stimulus funds.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn is withholding $52 million in transportation payments for Illinois’ cash-strapped schools so he can use that money instead to get the most out of federal Medicaid stimulus funds.

“After the buses are in the garage and the students are home for the summer, how’s a school district supposed to make a cut?” asked state Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, and Hutsonville School District superintendent. “Those expenses have been incurred. There is no way that we can do that. This is the most ridiculous proposal I’ve ever heard.”

As part of the 2009 stimulus plan, the federal government offered states more Medicaid money if they didn’t decrease Medicaid eligibility and followed certain guidelines. Illinois receives 60 cents from the federal government for every dollar it spends, but that will drop to the pre-stimulus amount of 50 cents for every dollar spent starting next month. So far, the state has received $3.6 billion from the federal government’s stimulus plan.

“We have to manage our resources right now in order to get that match. That’s worth maybe $100 (million) to $200 million to our state,” Quinn said at a news conference earlier this month. “I have to do everything necessary to get the most money that we can.”

Quinn said he is using school transportation funding, because the school districts have flexibility in how they spend their general state aid, or GSA. Schools can dip into their GSA to cover the lack of bus money over the summer and fall months, Quinn’s office said, until they are reimbursed for their transportation outlays.

Quinn’s office plans to pay the districts the $52 million by December for expenses incurred during the fourth quarter, which ends June 30.

For the East Moline School District, Quinn’s actions translate into $75,000 held back for the fourth quarter.

“Ultimately it comes down to how is it going to affect student achievement and learning?” asked Kristin Humphries, East Moline School District superintendent. “When you take away money from something like transportation, we have to find the money somewhere.”

Like many other school districts, East Moline is using its reserves to cover its expenses until the state pays its bills.

“A year from now we can’t do that,” Humphries said. The district may need to increase classroom sizes and trim back programs for students to deal with the financial crunch, he added.

Humphries is also the schools business manager, a position normally shouldered by two people, in an effort to save money in a district cut down to the bone. For example, Humphries says the district recently spent roughly $4,000 to replace the transmission on a bus worth only $10,000. Normally that bus would have been traded in and a new one bought in its place, he said, but the money isn’t there for it right now.

His district still hasn’t received transportation payments for the second and third quarters of this fiscal year.

Delayed or diverted transportation reimbursements intended for the school districts are part of the $1 billion in old bills dating to December 2010.

Chris Norman, director of financial services for the Alton School District, said knowing his district eventually will receive the money takes some of the sting out of the news.

“It’s one thing when things happen, and we have plenty of notice and there is something we can do about it,” Norman said. “But when you’re past the point of where you can plan for that, that’s where the difficulty comes from.”

Quinn derided the budget the Legislature sent him in May because of cuts to his proposed budget, especially in education.

Paying for school buses hasn’t been a priority for Quinn. He initially proposed cutting transportation funding for the next school year in half, or by $92 million. After outcries from schools and legislators, that idea died.

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