School district considers closure while awaiting Illinois funds

MOUNDS, IL – Illinois lawmakers are one step closer to figuring out how to fund your children’s schools. They reached a general agreement Thursday.

The agreement over the state’s school funding formula will not be released until after the final drafts have been revised. But, leaders say they will meet Sunday, one day before the House is expected to vote.

The tentative agreement comes after months of division over how best to fix the state’s current funding formula. Both parties have agreed the 20-year-old plan doesn’t adequately fund low income districts, but they have disagreed on how to fix it. Thursday’s announcement of a step toward a new deal may signal a change.

In a statement Thursday, the governor’s office said: “Governor Rauner applauds the four leaders in coming to a consensus on historic school funding reform that reflects the work of the School Funding Reform Commission. He thanks them for their leadership and looks forward to the coming days when the legislation is passed by both chambers.”

But districts have already started classes, and many aren’t sure how long they can continue without that funding from the state. Inside Pam Thurston’s classroom, it’s math that’s got the fourth graders puzzled. With no school funding approved by state lawmakers yet, Thurston said that problem is puzzling, too.

“I just really didn’t think it would go this far,” Thurston said.

If the funding fight continues, the 100-percent poverty school district based in Mounds would likely be one of the first in the region — and the state — to close.

“We don’t have the money,” Thurston said. “We’re all in rural areas down here, and we don’t have the financial backing from the businesses that other districts do.”

“I mean, ultimately and eventually we will run out of money and not be able to make payroll, either,” said Meridian CUSD 101 Superintendent Spencer Byrd. “The financial situation is quite serious.”

The superintendent said the district can’t borrow any more, having maxed out what they could to finish building a new elementary school that opened just two weeks ago. But that new school was no vanity project, the district’s old building was condemned because of mold years ag,o and students had been studying in mobile home units ever since.

“It’s kind of ironic, I guess, that we are opening up a brand new building this year. And now, the question has quickly become: How long can we keep the new building open?” Byrd said. “We can’t borrow. We have limited savings, and when we run out of money, we are really going to run out of money. We are really dependent on general state aid.”

He says unless lawmakers pass some kind of school funding soon, the district will be looking at closing classrooms and sending kids home from school by mid-October.

“I’ve held out being pessimistic as long as possible. Today will be the first communication I will send out to our staff about closing the school down,” Byrd said.

While hope isn’t gone from the school hallways, many seem resigned to watch Springfield politics continue at the expense of the students. But fixing the funding formula is something that must happen, according to Thurston.

“And, you know, all students, no matter where you’re from, you should be able to get the same amount of education, and they should pay the same no matter what district you live in,” Thurston said.

She said she still believes lawmakers will do the right thing by kids and pass school funding soon.

Byrd said they’ll meet with financial experts from the state at the school Friday to review finances and go over the books. They’ll work to find out specifically what the state of the district’s finances are and just how long they can operate without state money.