McHenry County school districts juggle unfunded Illinois mandates

1 of 2

With state funding in question each year, some area school officials want to see lawmakers better prioritize unfunded mandates, an annual list of educational requirements for school districts created without state dollars.

Although often with good intentions, mandates require school districts around McHenry County to juggle local tax dollars, staff and instructional time to ensure they comply with the new laws and regulations, school administrators from Woodstock, Huntley and Algonquin said.

One example lies within a new requirement this school year that resulted from the tornado that ripped through downstate Washington in 2013, said Susan Harkin, chief financial officer for Algonquin-based School District 300.

Districts now have to create storm shelters on any new school building. District 300 would have to spend between $625,000 to $750,000 for each building to comply with the mandate – a cost that ultimately would be passed on to residents, Harkin said.

“The only person who is going to pay for that is the local taxpayers,” Harkin said. “We have overly burdened ourselves with mandates that we don’t realize have become costly.”

The nearly 24 new mandates this school year range from ­student training on how to use automatic external defibrillators to school-wide training on active shooter incidents.

The list adds to the roughly 60 requirements the state legislature added for local school districts over the previous two school years, according to Illinois State Board of Education.

Districts across the state have grumbled for years about the costs tied to unfunded mandates, despite the good intentions behind them. Gov. Bruce Rauner briefly mentioned the desire to roll back costly mandates, as he discussed education during his inaugural address Monday.

State lawmakers need to work with school officials on narrowing the list to ones that focus on student safety and career and college preparation, Harkin said. A statewide review could help other area districts balance their own initiatives with ones controlled by the state.

Each year, administrators from Woodstock School District 200 expect to juggle local tax dollars and school instructional time to comply with new mandates, said George Oslovich, assistant superintendent for middle and high school.

To prepare for the defibrillator training, the district first partnered with Woodstock firefighters to train teachers for free on how to use the lifesaving tool. Health teachers then incorporated the student training into class.

The teacher training requires District 200 to find and pay substitutes to cover the teachers’ missed class time, Oslovich said. The student training absorbs time spent on other health subjects, he said.

“When a mandate comes down, it causes a ripple effect to the curriculum and oftentimes, our budget,” Oslovich said. “Mandates are well-intentioned ... but it requires us to figure out how to make it happen.”

Elsewhere in the county, officials from Huntley District 158 brought school nurses, who were already trained to use defibrillators, during institute days to teach health teachers how to use the equipment.

The approach limited the cost and time involved with the mandate, said Associate Superintendent Terry Awrey. But District 158 often has to juggle tax dollars and instructional time to comply with other unfunded mandates.

“Unfortunately, the state is running at a deficit. They don’t have the funds to do the mandates, either,” Awrey said. “It takes away a bit of local control, but the majority of the mandates are put into place with the best interest of the kids.”