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Illinois backlog adds to problems

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Editor’s Note: This story is the latest installment in a joint initiative by The Associated Press and Associated Press Managing Editors on the fiscal crisis facing U.S. states and cities, how state and local governments are dealing with severe budget cuts, and how American lives will change because of it.

By Christopher Wills
The Associated Press
SPRINGFIELD, Ill.  — The state budget amounts to a bad news, bad news situation for Illinois schools. They’re getting less money this year and they’ll still have to endure long waits to collect the smaller checks.

As the school year got under way, state government was already hundreds of millions of dollars behind in contributing its share for the education of Illinois children. More than $449 million from the State Board of Education was overdue by at least a month, as of Sept. 8.

Schools have several years of experience operating despite never knowing for sure when state checks would arrive. Districts have laid off teachers, dipped into cash reserves, altered bus schedules, postponed equipment purchases, slashed teacher training and delayed paychecks.

Some schools got so frustrated that they posted signs letting the public know exactly how much money the state owed.

“Frankly, it’s been going on for three years now, so I guess we’re becoming accustomed to it,” said Don Beard, superintendent at Tremont Community Unit School District 702, which was waiting on $171,000. “It’s a way of doing business anymore.”

Rockford schools were waiting on nearly $7.1 million. Elgin’s District U-46 had $7.2 million coming its way. Tiny Avon, in western Illinois, was due $47,800.

And the backlog for Chicago schools dwarfed everything else: $112.2 million, some of it two months overdue at that point.

The slow payments come at the same time the governor and lawmakers have cut state education support by $286 million. Federal aid is down, too. In all, schools will see an $8.4 percent drop in government funds.

All-purpose state aid to schools is being paid on time, the State Board of Education said. The money being delayed has more specific uses — transportation, special education, technical classes. A little over $2 million of the backlog was reimbursement for schools that provide free and low-cost meals for poor children.

Statewide, the overdue bills averaged 79 days of sitting in the Illinois comptroller’s office, waiting for the state to come up with money to write a check.