Springfield must invest in its schools

 Raise your hand if you want to pay higher taxes.

I’m guessing not many hands went up. No one wants a higher tax bill without a very good reason.

I’m leading a group of Springfield citizens who are convincing their neighbors that there are important reasons for all of us to contribute a little more to our schools. Invest in 186 is a grass-roots organization whose members believe that a strong community depends on a strong public school system. The strength of District 186 is dwindling.

Since 2011, Springfield has eliminated 85 teaching positions and 58 other positions from administration to security. Our Education Fund balance plummeted from $25 million in 2009 to less than $1 million now. Moody’s has downgraded our bond rating twice. We resort to lines of credit to make payroll. We’ve lost reading and math specialists, behavior management experts, computer personnel, truancy interventionists and custodians. School supply lists include hand sanitizer, tissues, zip lock bags and reams of copier paper. Teachers often buy basic supplies themselves.

There are many reasons for the district’s dismal financial situation – state revenue has declined; most of Springfield’s newer and wealthier residential neighborhoods are in suburban school districts; TIF districts reduce the property tax base. Regardless of the causes, the solution is up to us. If we want great schools, we must invest in them.

District 186 has an unrelenting achievement gap. According to the 2013 Illinois State Report Card, 15 percent or fewer of the district’s African-American fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math. An appalling 58 percent of our African-American students complete high school within four years.

What are we doing about this? Methodologically sound research has demonstrated substantial cost-effective benefits of early childhood programs for disadvantaged children. Academic and employment success as well as reductions in crime are strongly associated with early childhood programs. Yet we have 180 fewer slots for pre-kindergarten children today than in 2011. Capital College Preparatory Academy (CCPA) was created to give high-risk students tools for success, and it was working. But after only three years in operation, it was closed to save money.

School board members are reluctant to pass a resolution to let voters decide on a tax referendum. Board members are understandably pessimistic about its probability of passage, given that voters haven’t approved a tax increase for education since 1984. Meanwhile, without board support, Invest in 186 is hampered in presenting a compelling case to the community. Only after board approval will we know the actual tax amount, and the all-important accountability plan spelling out how funds will be spent.

Fiscal responsibility is critical, and we applaud the board’s intent to identify and eliminate waste and inefficiency. But this budget has been scrutinized for years as the district has attempted to balance the budget while protecting teaching and learning. Further review, while necessary, won’t make a big dent in a $5 million budget shortfall.

Springfield cannot be a vibrant city if it shortchanges its schools. Excellent classroom teachers are the most important ingredient in student achievement. Springfield is fortunate to have many excellent, dedicated teachers. But classroom teachers cannot succeed alone. The majority of District 186 students are low income. One-fifth have special education needs requiring additional services. The concentration and complexity of children’s needs – cognitive, emotional, medical, social – require an array of professionals to support and encourage individual students.

Are Springfield residents willing to invest a few dollars more each month to keep District 186 strong? Is it worth that sacrifice to improve the employability of Springfield’s future adults? Do the benefits of lower crime and unemployment warrant contributing more to our schools?

We think it’s worth a try, and we hope the board does too.  

Lynn Handy is director of invest 186, a group of parents, teachers and volunteers. She is a volunteer at Marsh School, parent of adults who were educated through Springfield Public Schools, and a grandparent of a junior at Springfield High School.  Before retiring, she was an executive in several state government social service agencies.

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