29 Apr Special Education Payments Lagging Behind (IL)

April 29, 2010

By: Dave Haney
Source: PJ STAR

Already struggling school districts now are being asked to foot the financial responsibilities for their special education students.

Special Education Association of Peoria County, the special education cooperative that serves some 2,500 students countywide, hasn’t seen a dime from the state for mandated special education services since January – and the January payment was to be issued about four months prior.

What’s more, the state also hasn’t paid a cent toward the special education of those children who are orphans.

"We’ve had to ask school districts to pony up to meet payroll," said SEAPCO Director Jane Winter Clark of what already is a nearly $1 million shortfall from the state.

"We cannot afford it, and they are in the same boat we are," she added of its member school districts.

As to funding toward the orphanage program, locally run at the Youth Farm, Clark said, "The state is not paying for their own kids – to me that really stinks. These kids have been bounced out of their element into a state-run home, and the state won’t pay."

While legislation approved in the General Assembly last week guarantees fourth quarter payments, to be issued June 20, they will be made from the state’s education assistance fund versus the general fund – which has a better cash flow and will be made on time. It’s unclear when the second and third payments will be made, state education officials said Thursday.

It’s also unclear about when any payments for such orphanage programs would be paid.

In fact, discussions are taking place to extend the time line from Aug. 31, when payments typically must be made, to the end of the year, said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

SEAPCO relies on the money from the state sources. But school districts that are part of the cooperative also make monthly payments, depending on the services needed and number of students in the program. The state’s shortfall adds up to what amounts to a 13th payment for school districts, Clark said.

"If SEAPCO doesn’t get the money, there’s only a couple options: go to the members or explore lines of credit like any other district," said Farmington Central School District 265 Superintendent Mark Doan, which is part of the cooperative. "And if I were a banker, I would have some question about the state paying those obligations."

It’s not uncommon for the state to meet its obligations well into the next fiscal year. Such was the case this year.

SEAPCO still has payroll and costs. That means the obligations all fall back on the member school districts.

For Farmington, that’s about $120,000. At other districts: Elmwood, as much as $35,000; Dunlap up to $120,000; Peoria Heights, between $90,000 and $105,000; Illini Bluffs, possibly $55,000. Smaller school districts typically pay a small er amount.

"Those are costs that we can’t just back out of," says Elmwood Superintendent Roger Alvey. "SEAPCO is us, it is the 17 districts that comprises SEAPCO."

While unpleasant, "You find it from your reserves or unspent budget expenses," Alvey said, acknowledging for some school districts making up for the state’s obligation could entail some sort of borrowing depending on their financial situation.

But what superintendents find frustrating is that the state’s obligation for special education isn’t the only area where local school districts are being left holding open their wallets.

Millions of dollars in transportation costs, early childhood education and other programs also have been operating in lieu of funding from the state, leaving school districts to wonder how long they can foot the costs.

Other special education cooperatives and school districts, such as Peoria School District 150, that provide their own special education services also are without reimbursement.

The state currently is in arrears to District 150 for about $4 million in all areas related just to special education.

"Nobody has the crystal ball. What we struggle with is how long can we do this," Alvey said.

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