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Schools chief warns of state aid cuts

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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois' school chief this week sounded the alarm on possible cuts to the amount of money the state will give local schools during the coming fiscal year.

By Jayette Bolinski

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois' school chief this week sounded the alarm on possible cuts to the amount of money the state will give local schools during the coming fiscal year.

Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, called on parents, taxpayers and school officials to contact their state representatives about a House proposal that would eliminate $258 million — or more — as lawmakers try to address the state's backlog of bills.

As of April, the backlog stood at $5.5 billion, according to the state's comptroller.

"We can't shortchange our schools anymore," Chico said, noting that the state's 868 school districts have seen a loss of $650 million during the past three years. A loss of another $258 million could lead to cuts to school programs, staff and the length of the school day, or possible tax hikes, he said.

"What you don't do today with a teacher in a classroom to help a child succeed will pan out over time," Chico said. "You'll have people who are less prepared, have less of a skill level and will have a harder time getting a job, sustaining their families, paying taxes and keeping their communities strong."

The House proposal is contingent upon how successful lawmakers are in achieving $2.7 billion in Medicaid cuts. That means the reduction in education spending could be higher — as much as $500 million or $750 million, state education officials project.

Gov. Pat Quinn's budget proposal spared cuts to education and keeps funding levels the same as last year, Chico said.

He added that the House proposal caught local school officials off guard.

"Now it's getting out there, and now we're starting to hear back from people saying, 'Wait a minute. No more cuts. We're already doing a lot of cutting at our local level where we stemmed the tide. We don't need this big surprise of funding cuts,'" Chico said.

Pete Sherman, spokesman for Springfield Public Schools in the capital city, said state spending cuts would have a severe domino effect on a district that, like so many others, is struggling to balance its budget.

"When we hear about additional money being taken away or additional expenses being placed on districts, we just don't know where that money's going to come from without cutting programs. It's not like we also can just turn around get money elsewhere," Sherman said, adding that Springfield's school district is subject to tax caps.

The district, Sherman said, is cutting as much as it can, relying on fund balances and possibly even borrowing — all of which school officials expect to continue doing for the next two or three years.

"We're already having one of the most difficult financial conversations we've ever had. Anything on top of that would make it really, really difficult," he said.

Jayette Bolinski can be reached at [email protected]

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