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Illinois schools hungry for capital-program funding

March 9, 2019
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New Berlin Schools Superintendent Adam Ehrman discusses the benefits of the school district's $14.5 million elementary school built in 2009 in this Friday, March 1, 2019 photo. The district built the school with the promise of a $5 million state contribution from the 20-year-old school construction grant program. But the program hasn't been funded for a decade and New Berlin's wait for the state subsidy hampers the district's effort to fix the problems of a crowded, outdated junior-senior high school. As new Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker pushes for approval of a multibillion, statewide capital construction program, public school officials press for funding the grant program, which has a 15-year waiting list of 285 projects seeking state-subsidy approval. (AP Photo/John O'Connor)

NEW BERLIN, Ill. (AP) — Outside the wide, well-lit hallways of the New Berlin Elementary School, there’s a roomy expanse of school district-owned farmland, and to the south of that, the problem that farmland might one day solve.

The junior-senior high school, first built just after World War I, has been cobbled together with five additions, the latest of which was a half-century ago. The oldest section’s electrical grid won’t support air conditioning. The cramped cafeteria hosts so many lunch periods they nearly collide with breakfast and dinner.

It stands in stark contrast to the pre-K to 5th grade center, a gem built in 2009 for $14.5 million, subsidized, on paper, by a state contribution of $5 million from an innovative, 20-year-old school-construction grant program. But the state hasn’t funded it in a decade and New Berlin, 18 miles (29 kilometers) west of Springfield, waits for its promised $5 million, reluctant to invest in long-term solutions for the problematic high school.

“There is an opportunity cost,” New Berlin School Superintendent Adam Ehrman said in the grade school. “It’s $5 million of our money that we’ve had to continue for 10 years to put into this building that we’ve not invested into the market. Students’ education can’t always wait.”

The new governor, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, has proposed a multibillion-dollar state construction program. Educators such as Ehrman have a suggestion for where to put a chunk of it.

Illinois State Board of Education records indicate that since 2004, 270 Illinois school districts have applied for 285 state school construction grants without funding. Based on the average cost of the 606 projects funded since the program debuted in 1998 and adjusted for inflation, The Associated Press estimates the unfunded projects are worth nearly $6 billion, of which the state, based on history, would theoretically pay about $3.1 billion.

“This is an obvious place that we need to have capital investment,” said Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat. “We have a backlog of projects that we are obligated to pay. And anytime you make a reasonable assessment of pre-K to 12 needs, there’s an incredible need for new buildings and new investment.”

Manar, chairman of an appropriations committee, and Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago, the Transportation Committee chairman, have scheduled a series of stops across the stat e to hear taxpayers’ desires for a massive building program. The last one, in 2010, was $31 billion.

The school-building program is not without success. According to an AP analysis of records provided by the Capital Development Board under the Freedom of Information Act, $9.3 billion has been spent on 606 projects since 1998 , with a state government contribution of $4.45 billion.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and a school-reform-minded Legislature concocted it in 1997. It promises a cost match of 35 percent to 75 percent, depending on local resources, for school districts adding classrooms for a growing enrollment or replacing outmoded structures. The state borrows the money by selling general obligation bonds.

Conceived as a $3 billion effort, it got a boost in 2001 from former GOP Gov. George Ryan’s $12 billion Illinois FIRST construction program. All told, from 1998 through 2003, there was $6.7 billion in school construction, with the state pouring in $3.5 billion, according to the AP analysis.

But school administrators dreaming of a huge payday from a Pritzker plan would do well to study the numbers from the last time the program saw substantial funding. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Jobs Now construction program in 2010 was, at $31 billion, 2 ½ times larger than Illinois FIRST. It yielded just $1.3 billion in state funds toward a $2.7 billion investment overall for schools.

And inflation has taken its toll. The analysis shows that completed projects cost an average of $15.4 million, with the state’s share coming in at $8 million. Adjusting each project for inflation, based on the year it was completed, the current average would be $20.8 million per project, with a state-share average of $10.9 million.

The need among public schools is likely much greater than the wish-list suggests. There have been only 40 grant applications since 2011, likely reflecting school districts’ attitude that there’s no sense applying if there’s no money forthcoming.

Tri-City School District 1, headquartered in Buffalo, east of Springfield, applied for a grant in 2014, according to the list, but continues struggling with its 1937 high school.

“We feel it every day,” said Superintendent Jill Larson, ticking off problems from security concerns raised by antiquated windows and doors to the time-travel feel of a visit to the vintage rest rooms. Sangamon County voters last fall approved a 1-cent sales tax for school security, which means $391,000 annually for Tri-City. But the school board wrestles with how much to repair an obsolete facility.

“Even with renovation, you still have an 80-year-old structure,” Larson said.

Lawmakers are looking at the program even before capital-bill talks get serious. Democratic Rep. Will Davis of Homewood, an assistant majority leader, is sponsoring legislation to revamp the process , which includes starting from scratch, although he said it’s meant to be a conversation-starter.

“If we’ve had districts languishing on the list that long,” Davis said, “something is wrong.”

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Online:

List of school construction projects funded since 1998

List of unfunded school construction grant applications

Davis’ bill is HB2898 .

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor .

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