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Crumbling Commitments: The state promised millions for school construction projects

Rochester needs a new junior high. State officials won't argue with that. They even agreed to pick up more than half the tab. Still, they never said anything about putting the project on layaway.

Three years after putting up $8.3 million in local money, voters in this central Illinois town had to step up again, this time to shoulder what has been an empty promise from the state.

 "The taxpayers did what they were asked to do, which was, show us your local support and the state will grant us an entitlement," says Rochester Superintendent Thomas Bertrand. "Well, they gave us an entitlement and they haven't funded it. So then we had to go back to the voters again."

Rochester isn't alone. From Chicago to the suburbs and on to the far corners of downstate Illinois, two dozen school districts are stuck with crumbling commitments from the state. Millions in construction dollars were promised in 2003. But no money went out.

The state school construction account ran dry after Gov. Rod Blagojevich's first fiscal year, leaving empty-handed school officials to observe two years of bipartisan bickering. The governor and legislative leaders can't agree on a way for the cash-strapped state to fund new school construction, though talks were expected to resume this month.

In the meantime, a growing number of school districts must put up with antiquated infrastructure or find a way to finance construction costs themselves. 

In April, Rochester voters agreed to take on another $11.2 million in debt. That, coupled with the $8 million they approved in 2002, would cover additions to the elementary and high schools and a replacement for the junior high, a building where one wing dates to 1921.

"It's your classic old school building where the guts are worn out," Bertrand says. "The electrical, the boiler, the plumbing — the whole infrastructure was completely worn out."

The conditions were poor enough to land Rochester the top spot on the state's school construction priority list. If there's ever any money, Rochester is first in line. But thousands of Illinois schools need electrical and plumbing upgrades, or structural work, or new doors and fire alarms or roofing work, according to a state survey released earlier this year. Eliminating these safety hazards alone would cost an estimated $2.2 billion. The need for new schools and building additions takes the overall price tag to $6.7 billion.

Of course, even if it weren't dealing with its own deficit, the state would not shoulder the entire burden. State construction grants are called entitlements, though districts must prove a physical and a financial need for the state dollars. Rochester, for instance, is scheduled to pay for about 45 percent of its project. If the state doesn't come through soon, Bertrand says, the district will be forced to issue 20-year bonds for the  $11 million in debt voters OK'd last spring. That would max out the district's credit and, Bertrand says, make it impossible to address future building needs for at least five years.

Difficult as it would be, Rochester at least could afford to complete its construction efforts. Until the state steps up, the Stewardson-Strasburg school district can't even begin long-needed renovations. 

"My district didn't sell the bonds," says Superintendent Ruth Schneider. "We wanted to wait. I guess, 'show me the money' — that kind of thing. We wanted to make sure [the state] was going to come through. That was three years ago. So we're still waiting."

Located about 15 miles north of Effingham in east central Illinois, that district consists of one K-12 building set in the middle of a cornfield. A section of the building is as old as the district itself, which formed when the tiny towns of Stewardson and Strasburg combined schools five decades ago. 

"If we don't get some money for onstruction, I don't know how we maintain this facility for the 21st century," Schneider says. "We've actually had to cancel school in the past because of sewer back-ups. We're kind of in a low area and when it rains real hard we get sewer back-ups — sometimes even when it doesn't rain. The lines are just old and crumbling and need to be replaced."

Beyond those upgrades, the district — ranked third on the school construction list — wants to add 15 classrooms, two computer labs, a media center and a new gymnasium. The state agreed to pay for nearly two-thirds of the $3.2 million project. But Schneider fears the waiting game will cost her district dearly.

"Construction costs have risen dramatically," she says. "So even though my legislators keep saying to me, 'You're going to get the money. You're going to get the money,' my response has been, 'By the time you get it to us, it's going to be too late.'"

Staff at the State Board of Education and the Capitol Development Board, which jointly administer the school construction program, say they've yet to consider possible inflation adjustments for the projects approved in 2003. That list promised $148.6 million to two dozen school districts, including $29.8 million for Chicago and $29 million for East St. Louis. And while those schools have languished on the waiting list, some 250 more applications are stacking up at the State Board of Education. Those requests won't be approved or denied until new state revenues arrive, although more than three dozen districts already have secured their local shares.

The school construction picture is so bleak that one official says it didn't even merit a mention at a recent conference of school superintendents. 

"The reason is that we've given up on it," says Diane Cody, superintendent of Winfield School District 34, which enrolls about 390 elementary students in DuPage County. Winfield is fifth on the state construction list, but its tax base is strong enough that the district was counting on the state for $2.3 million of of the $9 million needed to renovate its buildings and put an addition on the middle school.

Winfield finished the projects last year by taking on additional debt. But, Cody says, parents still want to know when the state is going to live up to its commitment.

"I wrote letters to every single representative and senator in the Illinois legislature explaining our situation," she says. "Everybody was sympathetic, but everybody would say, 'Yes, but we have no revenue source.' And I understand that concept, but then maybe we should cut something else.

"I don't know how a state body can entitle you to this money, and you assume it's coming and it doesn't ever come."

For Cody, the side deals that surrounded spring budget negotiations only stoked her frustration.

"There was money going to all kinds of places in the city of Chicago," she says. "It was the pork money, or whatever they call it. It was very disheartening."

Despite the Democrats' late-session wrangling, the governor remained true to his core principles, counters Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for Blagojevich's budget office. 

"The legislative process is one of negotiation and compromise," she says. The budget did put another $325 million into education, though it provides no school construction funds. Those dollars will come, Carroll says, when Republicans work constructively to help devise a revenue stream. 

"For three years in a row, Republicans have failed to come forward with their own proposals to fund a school construction program and then when it doesn't get done, they like to point a finger at everyone but themselves," she says. 

"It's rather disingenuous." 

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, a Greenville Republican, helped sponsor the original school construction program in 1997.

"It's been a huge success," he says. 

"A lot of schools have benefited. Taxpayers have benefited locally. And we've done a great job of enhancing the infrastructure of schools throughout Illinois as a result of the program."

Still, he's not willing to hand Gov. Blagojevich a blank check.

"I just have some concerns about the administration and how everything is politicized," Watson says. "We can pass the bonds. We can authorize the spending. We can actually appropriate it. But the governor has to release it and there's a real lack of trust in this administration."

Democrats have had their own misgivings. 

Last year, Blagojevich wanted to finance $550 million in school construction with a 75-cent increase in the state's per-pack tax on cigarettes. The proposal was soundly opposed by Senate President Emil Jones, who, like Blagojevich, is a Chicago Democrat. The previous year, House Speaker Michael Madigan, also a Chicago Democrat, complained that Blagojevich had offered no method to finance a construction budget that included $550 million for schools. 

Even if all the Democrats agree on a construction plan and a way to finance it, they still need a handful of Republican votes to achieve the three-fifths vote required for incurring state debt. 

Blagojevich hasn't orchestrated that sort of bipartisan effort since 2003, roughly the same time the state made its last school construction commitments.


Illinois Issues, October 2005

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