School finance, 2009

Attentive readers of The Daily Sentinel may have noticed two related stories last week. On Wednesday, a headline read, “District 51 cuts $2.3 million from budget.”  That was followed on Friday by one that said, “District 51 gets $6.7 M in stimulus funds.”

Well that sounds good. The district receives almost three times as much in federal stimulus funds as it is forced to cut due to state budget reductions. No problem, right?

Not so fast.

In the convoluted world of school finance today, a dollar in federal money doesn’t replace a dollar in state money. As School District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland put it, “Because of the state budget, we had to cut apples, and the federal government is giving us oranges and telling us we can only use it to make orange juice.”

Specifically, due to the state budget — which provides 75 percent of District 51’s operating budget — the district had to cut $2.3 million from its general fund. Much of the cuts came in staffing and travel, but the reductions will also affect technology and materials available for students, and operation of school buildings.

In contrast, the federal stimulus money must be used for specific programs such Title I and special education. While those programs are important, they may not be the district’s primary needs as it faces cutbacks in other critical areas.

However, by law the district cannot use these stimulus funds to backfill money lost due to state cutbacks, Kirtland said.

Congress and the Obama administration would have better served educators like those in District 51 if they had allowed them to use stimulus money where they need it most, not to boost programs that someone else decided were most important.


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