MCLEANSBORO, IL (KFVS) - Rural school districts in southern Illinois are struggling to state afloat after years of reduced state funding and continued uncertainty during the now eight month budget impasse.
School administrators say it's making it increasingly difficult for school administrators to plan for the future.
Hamilton County Unit 10 School District (CUSD 10) serves nearly 1,300 students from 375 square miles and is situated in rural McLeansboro, Ill.
Nearly two hours from St. Louis, Mo. and the Metro East, the largest city near Hamilton County is Mt. Vernon, Ill. where a little more than 15,000 people live.
Many of the students that graduated from Hamilton County High School will go on to vocational careers near home like farming. Others will leave their rural hometown seeking college degrees and professional careers.
Rural district works to maintain standards with limited resources
The district is faced with the challenge of providing a mixed education that serves students aspiring to move on to higher education and for those needing to be prepared for a vocation, all while adhering to state standards during a period of continued cuts to state funding, Hamilton CUSD 10 Superintendent Jeff Fetcho said.
Since 2011, the district has lost more than $3 million in general state aid not including financial losses from grants. Hamilton CUSD 10 employs 180 people, 25 less than five years ago. Class sizes average about 22 with a yearly operating budget a little more than $12 million, 54 percent of which comes from the state.
"We are at a point where it's going to be really, really, really difficult to make any reductions in personnel," Fetcho said.
He said the district has managed to maintain its educational programming for the most part, but a fluctuating student population makes programming a challenge. For example, this semester's high school population is about 330. Fetcho said in years past, it reached above 500. Class schedulers are constantly facing challenges of what classes need to be offered to serve students needs.
Community shows financial support for education
In the fall of 2015, Hamilton County High School removed its industrial arts program due to a lack of funding and interest. Several businesses in McLeansboro rallied behind students seeking vocational education to raise $17,500 to bring the course back.
"I felt like if I put out a sign in the front yard that said we need to raise $100,000, I feel like we could do it," Fetcho said.
However, fall classes had already began and it was too late jumble students and courses to make it work in the fall.
"By November we had had the opportunity to put together a schedule that could support the program," Fetcho said.
"We felt like at the beginning of the semester that we could certainly entertain the financial resources that the community was willing to give to support that program."
The high school brought the program back full time this January but the same situation could arise again in March, Fetcho said.
District finds innovative ways to enhance education
As money grows tighter and tighter, the district must explore additional avenues to enhance students' education.
"We just have to keep looking to find innovative ways to fill financial voids," Fetcho said.
Hamilton County High School just launched a co-op program with local businesses that takes students out of the classroom and puts them into hands-on job training while receiving high school credit. Students in the program get hands on experience in daycare, banks, and farming.
"Trying to provide the same if not more of an education with less people," Fetcho said.
For elementary students in grades two through five, teachers are delivering a blended learning program that integrates digital and online media with teacher instruction. The program allows for more individual learning. Fetcho said blended learning will be integrated into the six through eight classrooms in the future.
Planning for the future made difficult
Come March, the Hamilton CUSD 10 will need to plan its budget for the 2016-2017 school year. While the state passed a spending plan for schools amidst a budget deadlock, Fetcho said that will likely delay an education spending plan for next year.
Without knowing what the district will receive from the state, it becomes an extreme challenge and not a new one, Fetcho said.
"It has been that way the past several years," Fetcho said. "It puts us in the position where we have to make those decisions blindly."
"You don't know," he said. "You don't know what your revenue is going to be from the state."
The district is attempting to plan what courses it will offer and what staff requirements are needed. Fetcho said the school board will likely make an educated guess on what they think their state appropriations will be next year. The district also must notify employees whether they'll be asked to return within 45 days of the last day of this school year.
"To be honest with you, we have got to take a look at every program come March," Fetcho said.
The means the industrial arts program the community raised thousands of dollars to save could again be jeopardy along with other programs important to the students in the region.
Fetcho continues to worry about the state's education spending plan for Kindergarten through 12th grade.
"A lot of the state payments are being mandated by court decree," Fetcho said.
He asked the question of what happens if a K-12 spending plan isn't put in place and the courts don't set a mandate. His district relies on state funding for 54 percent of its yearly budget.
"You can't cut enough paper and pencils out to make that up," Fetcho said.
A group of educators with the group Illinois Vision 20/20 are championing policy that would require Illinois to plan its budget two years in advance instead of one, Fetcho said. He explained a two year budget cycle would prevent halts to education and other important state funded programs while giving legislators time to plan.