State warns of financially troubled schools

Members of the state Board of Education criticized the governor's policy on school funding Thursday as they released data showing that nearly one of every five Illinois school districts faces serious financial problems.

"Our schools are in financial trouble, and you can't solve troubles if you don't have the resources,'' said board member Ronald Gidwitz.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said he will not push for major changes in the way Illinois schools get their money until lawmakers agree to his plan to replace the Board of Education with an agency under his control and can prove to the public that their money won't be wasted.

In the meantime, he has advocated incremental changes, such as his proposal to raise state education spending by $400 million next year -- about $280 million less than the board considers necessary.

"What's happening in this state is just so distressing,'' said board member Beverly Turkal. "When I'm told that we'll get the schools fixed first and then we'll take care of the money -- I don't believe that and I don't like it.''

The board announced Thursday that 156 school districts, 80 percent more than last year, have slipped into "financial watch,'' the worst of four categories. Meanwhile, the number of districts in sound shape, receiving "financial recognition,'' slipped 17 percent, from 431 to 356.

It also announced a sharp jump in the number of schools with academic problems -- from 49 two years ago to 335 now.

State schools Superintendent Robert Schiller attributed both problems to a lack of funding. He said state and local governments are not providing enough money to cover basic operational costs, such as insurance, textbooks and even gasoline for school buses.

"We will continue to see more school districts finding themselves cutting programs, cutting staff, eliminating services and yet having their financial profile reflect a tumbling,'' Schiller said.

The number of districts in the two worst financial categories are spread fairly evenly throughout the state, an Associated Press analysis shows. Twenty-nine percent are north of Interstate 80; 32 percent are in central Illinois; and 26 percent are south of Interstate 70.

But when compared to population, southern Illinois is over-represented in the two bottom categories.

Southern Illinois has one financially troubled district for every 11,329 residents. Central Illinois has one district per 27,957 residents, and northern Illinois -- aside from Cook County -- has one per 40,846 residents.

Cook County has one per 137,865 residents, but the results are skewed there because a single district, Chicago Public Schools, with one-fifth of the state's total students.

The report is certain to strengthen the calls for a major overhaul of the way Illinois pays for education.

Even before the list was formally released, advocacy groups were calling for changes to the school financing formula to reduce school districts' reliance on property taxes, which hurts those in poor and rural areas.

Felita Crayton, a Thornton Township High School District 205 board member, has been lobbying for reforms since 1985 and said she's not satisfied with the governor's message to wait longer.

"This is getting a little redundant, a little tiresome, coming back for the same thing, to put Band-Aids on the situation,'' Crayton said during a visit to Springfield this week.

Blagojevich has said fundamental changes must wait until lawmakers agree to disband the independent State Board of Education and create a cabinet-level department under gubernatorial control. He argues that will improve accountability and let him help schools cut costs by $1 billion over four years.

"It seems to me we better get our own house in order before you are really in a position to ask the public to start making fundamental changes,'' he said this week. ``That, I think, is a necessary precondition for any kind of realistic attempt to equalize this unequal funding system we have in Illinois.''

The finance list shows that 544 districts either scored at the same level or improved, but Turkal said the figure wasn't encouraging because some districts may have cut programs just to maintain their level.

The four financial categories are based on a variety of factors, including how much cash a district has in comparison to its revenues and the size of expenditures versus income. The system is intended to alert schools and communities about looming financial problems, though detractors say only offers a snapshot of finances on a particular day.

The board also said Thursday that 335 schools had been placed on the ``academic watch list,'' up from 49. There are 280 schools in "academic early warning status,'' down from 664, based on standardized tests administered in 2003.

Schools on the early warning list must prepare a school improvement plan. They are put on the academic watch list if their scores don't improve within two years of being warned. Schools on the watch list could lose state funding and be forced to let some students transfer.

Associated Press writer John O'Connor contributed to this report.