SPRINGFIELD — Illinois is nearly six months behind in meeting its obligation to provide millions of dollars in dedicated funding to school districts across the state for transportation, special education and other expenses.
By authorizing a full year’s funding for elementary and secondary education, the stopgap spending deal that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly struck over the summer was supposed to spare public schools from the uncertainty plaguing other state operations, which were only funded for six months.
But while Illinois is keeping up with its distribution of general state aid, which covers day-to-day operations for schools, districts are still waiting for two payments of separate money for buses, special ed programs and other specific expenses.
Those payments — the fourth quarterly payment from last year and the first for this year — are sitting in a stack of unpaid bills at the state comptroller’s office that now totals nearly $10.9 billion.
Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for new Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza, said school districts should soon receive last year’s final payment.
“It’s our goal to try to get those payments out next week,” Pallasch said Thursday.
Delays like this are nothing new for schools after years of fiscal turmoil.
As Holly Sparkman, a spokeswoman for the Rock Island-Milan School District put it, “We’re always waiting for money from the state.”
But that doesn’t make it easier for school officials, who are forced to dip into cash reserves or borrow money until state funds come through.
Todd Covault, chief operational officer for the Decatur School District, said the situation underscores the importance of having plenty of money in the bank.
“You better have money in your savings account to cover this because there’s a lot of rainy days,” Covault said.
Decatur is waiting for about $3.5 million from the state, $1.5 million from last year’s final disbursement and $2 million from this year’s first.
Covault said the district, which began the school year with enough cash to cover expenses for 100 days, is relying on reserves to tide it over.
Not every district can rely on its savings to get through the lean times, however.
Martin Hickman, business manager for McLean County Unit 5, said the Normal-based school district may have to borrow extra money in early 2017 if the payments don’t come through soon. The state owes Unit 5 about $5 million for transportation, special education and other categories.
“We’re going to have to go out earlier than we normally would, and we’re going to have to ask for a much bigger loan to get us to the end of the fiscal year” June 30, Hickman said.
The payment delays have been overshadowed “by the message ... that there’s a budget for school districts and that we’re fully funded,” he said.
Even if the state were making payments on time, funding for transportation and other specific expenses has been reduced in recent years, Hickman said.
The stopgap spending plan for other state operations expires Dec. 31, and Covault said some school officials are starting to worry about what might happen when lawmakers and the governor finally reach a deal for the remaining six month of the fiscal year.
“When they finally get a budget, they may realize that they’ve (budgeted too much for) education and take some of it back,” he said.