Daily Herald
Suburban schools raise their hands for new building funds
Years ago, suburban schools queued up for state funding to build more classrooms. The money ran out, yet some districts built anyway. Now state cash is available.
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/13/2009 12:02 AM

Construction at a glance

How much? $3 billion over six years.

Where will the state get the money? Video gambling, higher alcohol taxes and vehicle fees.

Number of requests pending: 326

The fine print: Nearly two dozen school districts promised state money before the account ran dry are the first to get any new funding. Those projects account for roughly $150 million.

How it works: Schools apply, the state ranks them by need and then doles out money until there is no more..

Construction co-pay: The most the state will pay is 75 percent of a project and the least is 35 percent, depending on a district's ability to raise funding locally.

Source: Daily Herald reporting, legislative and Illinois State Board of Education documents

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SPRINGFIELD - Nearly eight years ago, officials at Maine Township High School District 207 asked the state for help building new classrooms for a burgeoning student body, hoping to join hundreds of districts statewide that had cashed in on billions' worth of construction aid.

But the state's construction credit card maxed out in 2003 before District 207 came up for consideration. Its aging application is one of more than 40 suburban funding requests among the 300-plus still on file at state offices.

Now those old requests are about to get new life, and possibly create new complications, as the state is poised to embark on another state-sponsored school building boom.

A $31 billion construction program approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor in July includes $3 billion for school projects over the next six years. The program is expected to be financed with the state's take from a planned expansion of video gambling, higher alcohol taxes and vehicle fees.

By law, it's first-come, first-served construction spending. That means the 94 districts including Maine Township High that beat the April 2002 deadline for the state's 2003 budget year now get first crack. There are 13 schools from across the Daily Herald's readership area on that 2003 list, including Huntley Unit District 158, St. Charles Unit District 303, Bensenville Elementary District 2 and Antioch Elementary District 34, all seeking help paying for new schools, additions or remodeling.

But in some cases, the projects are done. Maine Township High paid for an addition at Maine West and conversion of an old wood shop and theater areas at Maine South into classrooms and labs.

Similarly, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 requested money back in 2005 for a new high school. The request remains pending, but the $125 million Metea Valley High on Eola Road in Aurora opened for students last month and was financed with local tax dollars.

Such districts could still qualify for state help. What's unclear at this point is what, if any, strings will be attached to construction funding for projects already finished.

With schools across the state reporting budget shortfalls amid a lagging economy and sluggish tax collections, there's likely to be interest in using a new check from the state to plug budget holes.

Yet, one suburban lawmaker pointed out that it's a construction program and said that any other use of the money would be unfair.

"Any construction funds for schools should be used solely for either paying down the debt or covering the costs for that specific construction project," said state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat and member of the Senate Education Committee. "There should be intense oversight to make sure that is followed through."

State Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who sponsored the $31 billion construction plan, agreed.

"In my view it's not available for any other purpose," Lang said.

And the litany of requests on file could mean most of the construction money the state expects to have for the next six years could already be spoken for and those not already in line might not have their projects considered for some time.

Meanwhile, a state education spokeswoman said the first question to be asked is whether the schools on the old lists are still interested in state money. In some cases, projects may have been abandoned or shifting economics and student growth may have rendered them no longer needed.

Maine Township High School District has an answer ready to go.

"If they want to know," said district spokesman David Beery, "our answer is: We'll take it."