RANTOUL - While budget cuts and an uncertain economy have forced two states to disband their academies for high school dropouts, the director of the Lincoln's Challenge Academy said Tuesday the Rantoul-based program is in no danger of closing.
But a drop in federal and state financial support and the war effort in Iraq has forced Lincoln's Challenge to decrease enrollment.
As a result, some Lincoln's Challenge supporters have begun lobbying Congress and the General Assembly to restore funding for the military-based academy.
Two years ago, Lincoln's Challenge Academy had a $10.3 million budget, according to academy Logistics Director Arvie Beard.
But this year the program's budget has been slashed to $8.8 million.
Beard said three major factors have caused the academy to lose $1.5 million of revenue:
- The Chicago school district, which had given $500,000 annually to Lincoln's Challenge, was unable to make a contribution this year due to budget cuts.
- State legislators cut funding from $3.4 million in 2002 to $3.2 million in 2003.
- When state and local funding decreased, federal spending for Lincoln's Challenge also decreased.
?For every $40,000 raised locally, the federal government chips in $60,000,? Beard said. ?When we lost money from the state and from the Chicago schools, we lost that much more from the federal government.?
Similar financial concerns have forced state legislatures in Missouri and New York to discontinue their challenge programs, according to academy spokesman Dick Steigmann.
But Lincoln's Challenge Director Peter Thomas said Tuesday he doesn't expect the Illinois program to disband.
?There are no plans for the Illinois program to go away under any stretch of the imagination,? Thomas said.
If the economy and budget woes weren't enough, the war effort has made running Lincoln's Challenge even more challenging.
Many of the academy's workers belong to the Illinois National Guard. Thomas said 24 of the academy's 166 staff members have been activated for military duty.
With less money and fewer workers, Thomas said, Lincoln's Challenge has cut enrollment from 400 cadets a year ago to 365.
Budget cuts, the economy and the war effort have affected the program in other ways:
The program has discontinued providing up to $2,200 to each cadet.
?There was not sufficient money in the budget for the cadets to receive a stipend,? Thomas said.
Nor is there money for ribbons and medals to reward cadets for outstanding work.
Money for 100 college scholarships from the Illinois Community College Board for cadets who earn their high school equivalency diplomas may also be in jeopardy.
And Thomas said the academy also curtailed step salary increases for its employees.
Shirley Arrington of Zion, a grandmother of a Lincoln's Challenge cadet, said she is concerned about how the cuts could affect the academy.
?We need for the state of Illinois to wake up and realize that our youth needs programs such as the Lincoln's Challenge Academy to give them hope and to help their dreams comes true,? Arrington said.
Arrington and other academy supporters are planning a fund-raiser on May 17 in Zion to call attention to the issue.
Supporters, including representatives from the Illinois treasurer's office, recently met with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's staff in an effort to restore funding from Chicago public schools.
Other supporters are asking the governor and the Legislature to increase state funding for the program.
Thomas said the academy is negotiating with officials from Indiana, Iowa and Missouri about the possibility of bringing their high school dropouts to Rantoul.
You can reach Tim Mitchell at (217) 893-1423 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.