MARION — Early childhood education services in Williamson County’s five school districts may not be available next year unless the state releases all or most of the funds owed to the program in short order, according to Sheila James, program coordinator for the Williamson County Early Childhood Cooperative.

If the state has not released funds owed to the cooperative by Aug. 1, Pre-K will not begin in the fall, James said.

“This action has never been taken before,” James said. 

The cooperative provides pre-kindergarten classes and services to teen parents and their children in the county’s five school districts: Johnston City Unit District 1; Marion Unit District 2; Crab Orchard Unit District 3; Herrin Unit District 4; and Carterville Unit District 5.

The fiscal year 2017 budget for K-12 schools allocated $2.5 million to the Williamson County cooperative for early childhood education services, of which only $904,000 has been paid. That means the state still owes the organization $1.6 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30 — and the state is currently about seven months behind on making payments.

“We serve the most at-risk children in Williamson County,” James said. Early childhood education and intervention is widely regarded as one of the most effective tools in preparing students for success who come from challenging backgrounds. With poverty rates so high throughout Williamson County and the region, the need for these types of services is invaluable to the future success of the students and schools, she said.

K-12 schools were fully funded for the current fiscal year with $11.1 billion in the stopgap funding bill approved by the General Assembly on June 30 and signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, even though most state agencies and services only received partial year funding.

But that doesn’t mean those K-12 dollars are flowing out on time. James said the Williamson County cooperative has had to take out a loan to cover the late payments. The most current issue the organization is facing, she said, is that the bank cannot extend another loan for fiscal year 2018 — which would cover the next school year — until this year’s loan is paid off.

The bank agreed to extend its current loan to the cooperative until December, she said, but that did not receive board approval because of the uncertainty of state funding. 

“Our board voted to not spend down our grant because of lack of payment by the state,” James said after the board met Monday morning. “Aug. 1 will be the deadline."

It's not fair to delay the decision to the last minute, she said, because parents and staff need time to make alternative plans, for their children and employment, respectively. They will notify staff and parents of the board's decision.

Williamson County Early Childhood Cooperative is a division of Williamson County Education Services, which also provides career and technical education services and state and federally mandated special education services to qualifying students in the five county districts that cooperative serves. The cooperative is governed by a board whose members are the five superintendents from each district and two other designees.

James said no one wants to see the program close — and it’s not a forgone conclusion that it will — but she said that she understands the board has to face harsh realities and prepare for the worst as the budget impasse cruises toward two years. 

Williamson County’s early childhood services program employs 48 teachers, aides and others, she said; it serves 600 students ages 3 to 5 in half and full-day pre-K programs; and it serves 35 teen parents and their children in the birth to age 3 early intervention program.

James noted that Rauner's office has set a goal that at least 80 percent of kindergarten students are "ready" when they show up for the first day of classes — and the governor has expressed his support for early childhood education services to help meet that target.

"The expectations at the kindergarten level have only gotten higher," James said, adding that pre-K today is what kindergarten was when she was in school. 

Upon being informed of the concerns of the Williamson County early education cooperative, Rauner's administration slammed Comptroller Susana Mendoza for failing to release the funds, even though there was no indication that Mendoza was holding the funds hostage.

"Unfortunately, the comptroller is putting high-quality programs at risk for closure by refusing to release these funds," said Education Secretary Beth Purvis, in a statement provided via email. "We urge Comptroller Mendoza to prioritize the needs of young children and their families so that every child, regardless of community wealth, is given the opportunity to thrive." 

Abdon Pallasch, spokesman for Mendoza, said the governor's office is being disingenuous, and has attempted to blame Mendoza's office for numerous late payments to struggling agencies, schools and vendors that are outside of the comptroller's control. Because of the historic budget stalemate between legislative leaders and the governor and Illinois' financial woes, state payments are falling further behind across the board.

Pallasch said that in the two years Rauner has been in office, the state's backlog of bills has doubled to more than $13 billion as he has failed "to fulfill his constitutional duty to propose a balanced budget." As a result, payments to schools all over Illinois have been delayed despite the full year funding increase agreed to by the General Assembly and governor. There's simply not enough money to make all the payments on time, he said. 

"Our office just released $1.2 million for Williamson school districts last week, including $270,000 for pre-K programs," Pallasch said, noting the remainder of funds were for special education and other services. "In response to a hardship plea the cooperative sent our office, we were able to advance them a $115,000 grant last week ahead of schedule, but delays will only get worse as Gov. Rauner holds up a budget deal for his pet projects, using Illinois' school children as political pawns."

This story has been updated to include the board's decision on whether to accept an extended loan.

Marilyn Halstead contributed to this report.

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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