Friday, March 18, 2011

Teacher layoffs increased last year

By Jamey Dunn

After Illinois schools have laid off thousands of employees, they likely face another fiscal year of funding below levels recommended by the State Board of Education and no end in sight to their wait for late payments from the state.

Illinois schools laid off 2,102 educators in 2010, up from 1,428 in 2009, according to a recent report from the Illinois State Board of Education. Of the 828 schools that responded to the survey in 2010, 549 issued layoff notices. In 2009, 349 schools — of the 791 schools that submitted information to the board — sent out pink slips. More tenured teachers, 426, lost their jobs in 2009. In 2010 the number was 199.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recommended around $7.6 billion in education spending for the upcoming fiscal year, while Gov. Pat Quinn proposal calls for about $7.2 billion. State Superintendent Christopher Koch said at a recent budget hearing in Springfield that the request represents a 3.5 percent increase, or $260 million, from fiscal year 2009 levels. ISBE proposed that the state increase the foundation level — the amount of money it gives schools per student — to $6,416 from the current $6,119. Quinn proposed a smaller increase to $6,267. Senate Republicans are calling for a 10 percent reduction in Quinn’s proposed general revenue fund education spending, which would equal a cut of about $725 million.

The superintendent took issue with Quinn’s proposed $95 million reduction in state support for local school districts’ transportation costs. “The bottom line is that we cannot teach students if they are not in school.” He called for a restoration of the cuts to transportation made during the current fiscal year.

Koch said the board has cut 34 programs, such as reading improvement, textbook loans and gifted programs, and saved about $246 million. He added that ISBE has gone from about 800 employees in 2000 to less than 500 today.

The board’s Financial Profile of the state’s school districts, also released this week, shows some district budgets have become more stable. The number of districts on the board’s financial watch list dropped from 39 last fiscal year to 32 in fy 2011. The number of districts the board recognized for their well-balanced budgets went up from 63 last year to 66 in the current report. The board took the state’s late payments into account when profiling districts, and according to the report, took steps to “specifically ensure that districts are not designated as being in financial difficulty solely due to delayed state payments.”

Regardless of these small steps in fiscal improvement, Koch said at a recent budget hearing that the state’s late payments to schools — totaling around $1 billion — are a huge burden to local school officials trying to keep schools in the black. “This situation makes it difficult if not impossible to plan: To determine staffing levels, to negotiate contracts and to conduct business overall in our districts.”

Koch renewed his call this week for $8.75 billion in borrowing — sometimes referred to as a “debt restructuring plan” — backed by Democrats to pay down the state’s backlog of overdue bills. “There are many moving parts to the budget process. I am concerned that unless the state is able to move forward with this debt consolidation, education funding could be reduced even further than what is currently proposed. Despite the recent income tax increase, our state’s deficit is so large that our cash-flow position will not improve anytime soon,” Koch wrote in a newsletter this week.

The borrowing plan would require Republican votes in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno says she continues to support the concept of borrowing as part of a responsible budget plan. However, Senate Republicans’ call for around $5 billion in cuts from Quinn’s budgets, which they say could allow the state to pay off its bills without borrowing, indicates that there may be little appetite to take up a borrowing plan in the Senate any time soon.

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