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Round Lake school hoping to reclaim control
By Abby Scalf | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/17/2008 2:05 PM

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Round Lake Area Unit District 116 hopes to do something no other Illinois school district has done - make the transition from state control back to local control.

The District 116 school board and the state school finance authority put in place because of the district's financial problems plan to meet in June for a review. The aim will be determining whether to pursue local control at the end of the 2009-10 school year.

"This is new ground and we're proud to be a part of it. It's gotten to a point where we can talk about this," District 116 board president W. Guy Finley said during a board meeting Thursday.

It was 2002, when through special legislation the state board of education established a five-member finance authority that took over the school board. At the time, the district faced $14 million in short-term debt.

That debt, which peaked at $17 million and threatened to close the district, has been eliminated. District 116 turned around its finances so much that in 2006 the state considered it to be in financial recognition, it's highest rating.

The law states the finance authority must stay in place for up to 10 years, or one year after any debts issued by the authority are paid off. The state board can abolish the authority following the recommendation by that group, anytime after three years.

"Once the board has determined it has made significant enough progress in these individual areas, you present that to the SFA and then the SFA will make a decision whether or not to continue until the end of our term, which is 2012," said Douglas Parks, chairman of the finance authority.

One issue to be considered, officials say, is that Ben Martindale, the district's chief executive officer, can only work for the district with the finance authority in place. Hired in May 2007, Martindale's goal was local control before his three-year contract ended.

"We made a commitment to him to stay in place through his three-year contract, which is close to half over," Parks said. "We can vote to disband tonight, but we unemploy Ben when we do that. It's not a practical thing for us to do."

To help determine district readiness, the board and finance authority on Thursday discussed indicators. They include monitoring short and long-term debt, strategies to reduce staff turnover, improving graduation rates and reducing truancy.

Finley said the school board is already taking more responsibility, particularly since the Magee School renovations have been completed and no teacher contracts are under negotiation.

"We got our ship right and got things turned around," he said.