By Bob Skolnik
The financial situation at Riverside-Brookfield High School just got a whole lot better. After years of intermittent deficit spending, cutbacks, and fee increases, District 208 is getting a welcome cash infusion from the state of Illinois.
Last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced that Riverside Brookfield High School District 208 will receive $8,907,494 from the state of Illinois as part of a grant that District applied for 11 years ago.
District 208 should be receiving the money in 30 to 60 days, said David Blanchette, a spokesman for Gov. Quinn.
In 2002, former Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann heard about a state grant program to fund school improvements, recalled former District 208 school board member Larry Herbst. Baldermann worked with the then-District 208 Business Manager John Gibson and Herbst, who was then the chairman of the school board's facility committee, to prepare a grant application. They decided to apply for a grant to fund a host of needed improvements at RBHS.
At the time they applied for the grant, district officials did not know that they were going to do a major renovation and expansion of the school four years later. But they knew that the old building needed a lot of work and included a host of projects that needed to be done to modernize the building.
"We just basically added up and got a total and said that's how much it would cost," Herbst said. "We didn't even know if we were going to qualify based on the request. It was pretty much the severe needs of the school that pretty much fell under life safety."
District officials applied for the grant from the Illinois Capital Development Board under a program designed to fund school repair and modernization.
However, the legislature began battling with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the state's capital budget was not funded for many years. As year after year went by without the capital improvement budget being funded, many at RBHS and other districts gave up hope of ever receiving the money.
But three years ago money was authorized when the Illinois legislature passed the Illinois Jobs Now Bill and the state could finally sell bonds to fund the program.
In the last three years, the state has sold bonds and the money has been gradually released to school districts in the order of their grant applications. Once the state began releasing money under the program, former RBHS Business Manager Christopher Whelton and officials from McHugh Construction and Wight & Co., district's architects at the time, tweaked the grant application to reflect the renovation and expansion that was completed in 2010 and cost around $65 million.
This year, in the final year of the program, District 208's number finally came up.
"There were other schools that were waiting longer," said Blanchette. "Those were funded during the first two years of the capital construction program, and then these schools we were able to reach during this third and final year."
Twenty-five school districts will get funding this year in Illinois under the program. The $8.9 million that District 208 will receive represents almost half of the district's annual operating budget of about $20.6 million this year.
This year's projected budget did not contain any cuts. The budget is only an estimate of expenditures because teachers are currently working without a contract.
"This is great news," said District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis. "I commend the previous board of education for having the perspective to apply for the grant back in 2002.
"I look forward to working with the board of education to identify how the money will be used to address the needs of District 208. I want to thank [state] Representative Michael Zalewski for his consistent support and advocacy on this matter."
The cash infusion comes as the school board and the teachers union negotiate a new contract to replace the five-year agreement that expired on June 30. Teachers are currently working without a contract and are currently getting whatever automatic step increases that they qualify for. But their base pay, for now, is based on last year's salary schedule.
Both school board President Matt Sinde and Wendy Cassens, an English teacher who is the head of the teachers union this year, declined to comment when asked how the $8.9 million grant might affect contract negotiations.
The new money will likely make it harder for school board negotiators to argue that they just don't have the money to pay teachers more, although school board negotiators are likely to emphasize that the money is just a one-time grant.
There are apparently no restrictions as to how District 208 can use the $8.9 million. Some of it will likely be used for capital improvements. District officials and its new architect are in the midst of doing a life safety review of needed improvements and have identified roofs, the bleachers and locker room at the football stadium, the bleachers in the main gym and the tennis courts as areas that need safety improvements, repair or possible replacement.
"The timing is unique in that we're in the process of doing our life safety and facility plan, and we know that we're going to have a few million [dollars] worth of work that needs to be done," Skinkis said.
Some want the money to be used to pay down bonds that were issued to pay for the renovation and expansion, while others say the money should be used to reverse the cuts in staff and programs that were made in recent years.
"I'm glad we're going to get the money," said Herbst, who is no longer on the school board. "The school could certainly use it. I would certainly hope that they would consider using some of it to bring back some of education programs that were cut."
Skinkis said that everything will be on the table once the school gets the money.
"I think all things need to be considered, and if that includes looking to bring back some things that were cut I'm sure the board will consider that," Skinkis said. "It's early in the process. I'm going to be working with the Capital Development Board and our school board to identify how and in what ways the money can be used."