Some school districts' financial ratings drop

Several local school districts are among those whose financial rankings have gone down as a result of tough economic times, even after being adjusted for delays in state payments.

The Illinois State Board of Education's annual financial profile of the state's public schools was released during its monthly board meeting Wednesday.

Statewide, more than 100 school districts dropped out of the highest financial ranking, according to a news release from the state board.

Here is a link to a pdf file of the 88-page report.

The state ranks school districts in four categories: financial recognition, the highest; financial review, in which they're monitored by the state board; early warning, in which the state offers assistance like cash flow analysis and financial projections; and financial watch, which is the highest-risk category.

Local school districts that moved down in the rankings (after their financial scores were adjusted for delayed state payments) include Urbana, St. Joseph Community Consolidated District and Oakwood, which went from recognition to review, Rantoul City Schools, Mahomet-Seymour, Bismarck-Henning from review to early warning, and Georgetown-Ridge Farm, which went from financial review to financial watch.

Heritage's rating went up from review to recognition, as did Potomac's.

State board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the districts' changes in financial ratings are a reflection on the last few years.

"We know districts are struggling and they have been for the last couple of year," she said. "This is just another sign of that struggle."

And there's no sign that things are getting better. The state's proposed budget for next year includes $308 million in general funds to K-12 education.

The state board said it expects that by the end of this school year, two-thirds of Illinois school districts will be spending more money than they're bringing in, based on information provided by school districts.

And as of this week, according to the state board, the state's current backlog of bills owed to schools is more than $634 million.

Since 2009, the state has cut 7 percent in general state aid.

The state board of education is asking for an $875 million increase in education funding for preschool through 12th grade for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"The Illinois State Board of Education is simply asking for what is required by law in fully funding General State Aid," said Illinois Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch in the state board's release. "While we understand that difficult decisions must be made and that there is a great deal of pressure on the state budget, we are asking the legislature to meet its constitutional commitment. This recommendation is aggressive but desperately needed to provide much-needed financial relief to districts."

Carol Baker, the Urbana school district's director of business, said Urbana's revenue and expenditures have both gone down. She said the lowered ranking is because the school district is receiving less in property taxes, as the assessed value of property in the school district either grows a tiny amount, as it did during the 2011-12 school year, or actually goes down, as it's expected to this year.

Baker said the school district looks better from an audit perspective than it should, because money it has received in contested Carle Physician Group property taxes is reflected in its fund balances, even though the school district has set it aside in case it needs to pay Carle back.

"We internally exclude (that money)," Baker said. "According to the state, it's money we're received."

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