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Local control back at Round Lake schools
By Bob Susnjara | Daily Herald Staff

W. Guy Finley

 

Ben Martindale

 

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Published: 1/29/2010 11:40 AM | Updated: 1/29/2010 5:38 PM

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Local officials elected by taxpayers once again will have a say on all issues from the budget to hiring top administrators at Round Lake Area Unit District 116.

The special state finance authority that has controlled District 116's operations for eight years because of budget problems, agreed Thursday to return control to local officials because those finances are back in order.

The decision is historic, because it's the first time a school district under state oversight has regained the ability to make its own decisions. Elected District 116 board President W. Guy Finley said that's just one reason to be proud.

"I think it speaks highly of us that we're getting this accomplished before the time frame the state set it at, which was 10 years," Finley said Friday.

Since 2002, the school finance authority appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education has overseen District 116 operations. The district was near collapse because of its sorry financial condition when the authority received the oversight powers.

Today, District 116's financial outlook is much better. That's why the school finance authority Thursday night voted 4-0 in favor of allowing the elected board to resume complete control of all matters.

"Really, it's turning (the district) back to the board and the community. And it's real important," said District 116 Chief Executive Officer Ben Martindale, who's been reporting to the state.

When the elected board receives official control July 1, residents will know precisely where to turn if they have concerns over major decisions, such as the budget or hiring of high-level administrators.

Finley said the elected board has been unofficially participating in major financial decisions.

Six other Illinois schools were operating under a state financial oversight panel soon after District 116 joined the list in 2002. Only District 116 has been deemed financially strong enough to fly solo again.

Deborah Vespa, the state education agency's division administrator of business support services, said District 116's return to local governance will serve as a model for other schools in the same position.

As part of the model at District 116, the elected board will hire a superintendent by March for the 2010-11 academic year, in consultation with the school finance authority. Other elements of the transition from state to local control are being addressed.

"It's not like we're making this up, but we're creating something," Martindale said.

District 116's financial descent began in the 1990s. Short-term debt was the main problem that threatened to force District 116's closure and send its pupils elsewhere in Lake County for education.

At one point, the short-term debt hit $14 million. The short-term debt has been eliminated and the district has an education fund $25.7 million in the black.

Despite the cheery outlook, Martindale voiced concern about the state letting go in the middle of an economic slump.

"I have a lot of anxiety about the timing of this because of the state's financial condition," he said, "because this district is so reliant on state money. It's going to be a very, very difficult budget year next year as we prepare."