School Funding Uncertainty Puts A Squeeze On Northern Illinois Superintendents

Jul 21, 2017

On today’s Friday Forum, we talk with two northern Illinois superintendents about their goals for the coming year. We’ll also hear how they feel about the uncertainty in school funding from the state of Illinois.

Freeport Superintendent Mike Schiffman's goal for the new year is to better align his district's schools, both in philosophy and curriculum. He's hoping to accomplish this through increased contact with students and parents.

DeKalb's new Superintendent Jamie Craven wants to better prepare students for future careers, and his approach is to build a foundation of trust among teachers and administrators.

On a recent July day, Schiffman stood behind a brightly colored lemonade stand at the corner of a busy intersection in his northwestern Illinois city.

“This is my second lemonade stand," he explains. "I’ve also had two 'donut discussions.' Donut discussions are more for parents and community members – lemonade stands are definitely for anybody that wants to stop by, but it’s mainly just to get out there and touch base with the kids.”

During our interview, cars zoom down the road and Schiffman shouted out periodically to try to get the occupants to stop by.

He wants to learn more about the residents he serves.

He recognizes it’s a high-poverty district, and test scores show room for growth.

“Around our area, where we don’t have a lot of wealth in some of our area’s school districts," said Schiffman, "we do see the need for more social and emotional needs. It’s not exactly always getting more teachers. It’s adding a psychologist, or a physical therapist, or an occupational therapist, or a social worker or guidance counselor. A lot of schools that have higher poverty need those social and emotional aspects to their school district.”

Schiffman is basing the new school year on a new motto.

“My first year was ‘Be the change,’ because we knew we had to do something in the district," he said. "The second year was ‘Believe in the change,’ because we made a lot of additions to teacher strategy. This year is 'Adopt the change.’ Teachers are learning to teach again to our students.”

He’s pushing attendance as a priority for the new school year — and he says there still is work to do to get teachers and students on the same page.

“We could have a student over at Empire Elementary School in the middle of the year move to Center Elementary School," said Schiffman, "and, in the past, teachers weren’t on the same curriculum; they were doing their own thing. So that’s one of the first things that you can do in a high-poverty area: align your curriculum. Make sure that, even if there’s a high mobility, that every kid is going to be taught the same type of curriculum.”

When it comes to funding, he says the state is still behind in payments to his schools, and he’s not sure if or when it will catch up. One type of payment from the state includes what are called “mandated categoricals.”

“That is mainly for special education and transportation, Schiffman explains. "Those come in quarterly payments, or they’re supposed to come in quarterly payments. We’re supposed to get four a year. What happened this year was they ended up paying one they were supposed to give us last year and then one additional one, so really we’re still missing three mandated categoricals. For us in the Freeport School District, that’s about $2.5 million that we’re behind on that.”

Not all of the district’s success will come from money, according to Schiffman. He says part of his job is to change culture.

“Because you have, sometimes, the loudest people that are heard are the negative naysayers," said Schiffman. "So we want to continue to press that positive message out there of what Freeport School District really is and all of the cool things that we do and the successes that we have.”

Changing perception is also on the mind of Jamie Craven, the new DeKalb Schools superintendent.

He previously worked in the Rochelle School District for 23 years, starting as a teacher and coach. He spent the last decade as the superintendent.

Craven comes in after a turbulent year for the northern Illinois district. His predecessor resigned after accusations of sexual harassment.

Craven says rebuilding trust between the administration and teachers will take time.

"Trust is embedded, in that it’s not something that I can just come in and wave a wand and say ‘I’m here, you need to trust me.’ Trust will be built through the decisions that I make," said Craven. "I think my longevity at Rochelle kind of speaks for itself, that I was able to be there and be successful for as long as I was. It’s a big organization, but it’s through just daily interaction with people and how you treat them and, again, how decisions are made."

Craven says his leadership style will be collaborative.

Jamie Craven
Credit Kishwaukee College

"I don’t have all the best answers and I don’t have all the best ideas-- that comes collectively," Craven said. "I am coming in here where good people are already working. You have to trust them to do their jobs, trust their opinions, and make collaborative decisions. Because, again, no one person holds all the answers."

One of the issues that came up during the most recent school board race in DeKalb was concerns over a widening achievement gap. Craven admits there is no "silver bullet."

"I believe you address the gap through opportunities," said Craven. "Opportunities when students are not at grade level, that you have good remediation in place, that you have great supports, but at the same time you have to continue to press the top."

He says that means more Advanced Placement and dual-credit classes.

"The only way to move the middle is to move the top," he said. "Again, it’s through providing great opportunities for kids. That will be the focus.”

Like many school advocates in the state, he says narrowing in on an equitable school funding formula will be a challenge.

"We know that there’s a lot of people who have been working on this, not just our elected officials in Springfield, but the different groups like the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Association of School Business Officials," said Craven. "These groups have come together and worked with our elected officials to try to put together a funding formula that is as fair as it can be. I think the proposal that’s out there now has probably been well vetted through all of those organizations and is maybe as close right now as we can get to being fair.”

Funding challenges aside, Craven says he has a lot of work still left to do in the coming weeks to get ready for the new school year. Still, he can't help but look ahead.

"My favorite day of the school year is graduation -- getting to see students go across the stage who you know are really prepared for their tomorrow," Craven said. "We have these kids 176 days and many hours before and after school. Our job is to get kids ready for their tomorrow, for whatever their ambition is.”

And both superintendents say it will take a lot of support within each community to make that happen.

  • WNIJ interns Austin Hansen and Dana Vollmer contributed to this report.