Local

Gov. Bruce Rauner's plan would end grants for alternative education program in McHenry County

Mauricio Beltran, 16, of Huntley works on a geometry problem while in class at Great Expectations School in Union Friday, May 8, 2015. Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget currently zeroes out the grant funding previously allocated to the Safe Schools Program, an alternative school program for at-risk kids.
Mauricio Beltran, 16, of Huntley works on a geometry problem while in class at Great Expectations School in Union Friday, May 8, 2015. Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget currently zeroes out the grant funding previously allocated to the Safe Schools Program, an alternative school program for at-risk kids.

In a building no longer used by Marengo-Union School District 165, nearly 40 McHenry County students from various area schools attend classes as part of an alternative education program.

The Regional Safe Schools Program of McHenry County, which operates out of Evergreen Academy, is designed for students in grades six through 12 who have been suspended or who face expulsion. Its doors also are open to students who have been involved in repetitive misconduct or who otherwise cannot attend their designated school anymore.

Run by the McHenry County Regional Office of Education, it’s a program that several area superintendents have deemed “vital.” However, it’s also a program that stands to lose its grant funding from the state under Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget.

The statewide Regional Safe Schools Program was born in 1997 as established by the Illinois School Code. At a local level, the program partially has been funded by general state aid, which is infamously unpredictable. But the regional program’s other main source of funding has been grant money, given to several other Illinois districts including Chicago Public Schools, according to the Illinois State Board of Education website.

Last fiscal year, the statewide grant funding came in at $6.3 million.

“But the Regional Safe School funds for the upcoming year – they’ve been zeroed out” in Rauner’s proposed budget, Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn pointed out.

Still, that doesn’t mean the program should be discontinued locally, Schermerhorn said. If the grant money remains zeroed, it will cost more for the districts.

Up until January, the program was offered free to McHenry County districts, but this year districts that use the program are charged $50 per student per day.

“We calculated what it was going to cost if we were no longer funded [with the grant money],” Schermerhorn said. “The accountant thinks we can do it minimally at $61 per day per child per school district. But districts would also have to provide transportation.”

Terry Awrey, associate superintendent for Consolidated School District 158, said the program has been used by the district “extensively since its onset.”

“It offers students an opportunity we cannot duplicate here in the district,” he said. “It helps kids who don’t fit in the normal school mode, those who need something a little different, maybe a more structured environment.”

Tim Mahaffy, superintendent of Fox River Grove School District 3, agreed.

“We rarely use it, however, when we do need it, we feel it’s a good program to have,” Mahaffy said, adding this year is the third time in 17 years a student is in the program, and the student is participating because of a mid-year move. “If it were to go away, we would no longer have that option.”

According to the ISBE site, more than 4,000 students were served by the program in fiscal 2012. The number of students served locally per year is not overwhelming, but that shouldn’t matter, Schermerhorn said.

“It’s only about 25 to 30 students per year, but those students otherwise wouldn’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “They’d be out, maybe committing crimes, some have substance abuse issues. These kids shouldn’t have nowhere to go during the day.”

The program’s importance has been emphasized at a state level, too.

Amanda Simhauser, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the state board actually requested an increase in funding for the program, about $5 million more.

“It was funded at $6.3 million in fiscal year 2015, and our budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year asked for an increase to $11.3 million,” Simhauser said, adding the need stems from an observed increase in suspension-eligible and expulsion-eligible students.

Like other area superintendents, Woodstock School District 200’s Mike Moan said he considers the program crucial despite his district having an alternative school of its own.

“We have one, but it’s not the same as the Regional Safe Schools Program,” Moan said. “It’s not the same as having that, sort of, last-chance option.”

Eighteen member school districts have signed and supported the program for as long as Evergreen Academy Principal Cheryl Horn has been there, which has been nine years, Horn said.

District boards recently have started bringing forth resolutions to extend participation in the program. Cary School District 26 on Monday approved it as part of the consent agenda.

“I think it’s vital for schools to have this alternative option,” District 26 Superintendent Brian Coleman said. “We’re still waiting to see how the funding is going to work out, but we fully support the program.”

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