Shrinking Budgets Put School Support On The Block

Across the country, a group of education administrators, known as regional superintendents, are seeing their budgets shrink. These administrators are involved in providing services like teacher certification and other support for school districts. In Illinois, the state's 44 regional superintendents have been working without pay since the governor zeroed out their funding in July. Maria Altman of St. Louis Public Radio reports that the issue of whether or not these officials are needed at all is coming to a head.

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In today's tight budget times, politicians often try to target what they call education bureaucracy. Now, in Illinois, that's affected regional superintendents, a group of administrators who provide support services to school districts from overseeing the training of bus drivers to GED testing. As St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman reports, the state of Illinois hasn't paid its 44 regional superintendents in months.

MARIA ALTMAN: Students are finishing up their assignments for an English as Second Language class at the St. Clair County regional office of education.

BRAD HARRIMAN: All the children here are from different backgrounds, different languages and they spend half their day here and half their day in their home school.

ALTMAN: That's Brad Harriman, the regional superintendent. He oversees nearly 90 employees who provide services like this ESL class to 27 school districts, but the 57-year-old is reluctantly retiring at the end of the month.

HARRIMAN: It's one heck of a corner that they've painted us into when the only way we know for sure we're going to get paid is if we retire, if we quit. So I'm hoping to have a retirement check before my...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARRIMAN: ...savings runs out.

ALTMAN: Harriman earns about $100,000 a year. But while his employees are getting paid, he hasn't gotten a paycheck since June. That's when Illinois Governor Pat Quinn eliminated $9.1 million from the budget slated for regional superintendents and assistant superintendents' salaries.

The governor did not eliminate their jobs, which are required by state statute. And so far the legislature has refused to cut the positions. But with the state four billion dollars in debt, the governor's budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft says they have to trim where they can.

KELLY KRAFT: We obviously have a large fiscal challenge on our hands here. We need to look at where we can find further efficiencies, where we can stop spending money on high administration costs. Our main role here, and Governor Quinn's main priority, is in investing in education in the classroom.

ALTMAN: Bob Daiber argues all the work regional superintendents do affects the classroom. The president, of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, says by state law, they're the ones who make sure school buildings are up to code, that every teacher is certified and that all support staff have had criminal background checks.

BOB DAIBER: In the State of Illinois you don't hear of convicted felons driving school buses. And the reason is because this office screens them. If this office didn't do that, some other agency is going to have to pick up the line of work.

ALTMAN: And Daiber says it's more cost-effective for regional offices to provide the services, than farming out those duties to other state offices or to individual school districts.

Education officials in other states are making similar arguments as they face increasingly tight budgets.

LEE WARNE: States are hard-pressed to find the money to do what needs to be done.)

ALTMAN: Lee Warne, executive director of the Association of Educational Service Agencies, says Iowa, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania all have scaled back funding for regional education offices this year. He says that means fewer services for schools or finding new ways to pay for them.

WARNE: Either the school district has to find a way to pony up more money to help pay for services or the regional agencies have to learn how to become more like businesses, and generate revenue by selling services of various kinds.

ALTMAN: Warne says agencies may have to charge a bit more for services just to be able to cover their overhead.

In Illinois, regional superintendants took Governor Quinn to court in an effort to force the state to pay their salaries, but a judge ruled in the governor's favor. Now the Democrat is recommending the administrators be paid through a special corporate tax that already goes to local governments.

But that change can't be made until legislators return to the state capitol late next month. And until then, Illinois' regional superintendents likely will remain unpaid.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Altman in St. Louis.

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