Evanston school districts manage without state aid

Brittney Wong

Despite the Illinois State Board of Education’s $613 million statewide payment shortfall, Evanston’s school districts have maintained healthy financial conditions, officials said.

‘We have a pretty conservative policy here as far as how much money we like to keep on hand in reserves,’ said Mary Rodino, deputy chief financial officer for District 202, adding that District 202 retains about 33 percent of its annual budget for situations like this. ‘We’re able to handle it without going out and borrowing.’

The state owes District 202 more than $900,000 and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 about $1.5 million in categorical state aid, which covers program-specific expenses like special education or transportation.

‘There’s a statewide backup of payments,’ said Mary Fergus, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education. ‘We’re in a financial meltdown.’

Because Evanston districts rely mostly on local taxes for funding and also keep a substantial amount of money in reserves, their budgets have not been affected. At the beginning of this fiscal year, the state paid District 65 the last two payments for the previous fiscal year, and just this month District 65 received the first categorical aid payment for the current school year.

‘There are still about five months left in this fiscal year, so we are hopeful that we can still get the money,’ said Kathy Zalewski, comptroller for District 65.

The state is up-to-date with their general state aid, another set of funds that makes up about 3 percent of District 202’s budget and about 4 percent of District 65’s annual spending.

Well over three-quarters of their budgets consist of local property taxes. Last fall, property taxes came in later than expected.

‘They were late because the tax bills went out late, but we did get by without having to borrow,’ said Mary Brown, District 65’s chief financial officer . ‘I just received a note with my personal property tax bill that said the tax bills may be going out late in the fall of 2010, so we’ll just have to wait and see how late those taxes come in.’

Administrators said they are remaining cautious.

‘It is causing a much more close monitoring of the budget day by day, ‘ said Pat Markham, communications director for District 65.

Markham said District 65 had about $19 million in reserves at the time of the last budget, a fairly substantial amount, because they can’t afford huge changes in spending.

‘Eighty percent of our expenditures are for salaries and benefits, so there isn’t a lot of room to move expenses out,’ she said.

Rodino said that while District 202 as a whole continues relatively unchanged by the state’s economic situation, parents in the district aren’t immune to financial problems. Because District 202 does not provide buses for its students, parents in the district can apply to the state for reimbursement for transportation costs.

Normally the state gives parents about $150 per child each year. This year the funding was withheld.

‘There are some situations like that where the state just says, ‘We cannot afford to pay it,’ Rodino said.

In spite of payment delays, both districts are optimistic the state will get back on schedule.

‘These are unusual times,’ Rodino said. ‘We just hope that they will get better soon.’ [email protected]