Work, but no pay for Illinois school superintendents -

Work, but no pay for Illinois school superintendents

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Without a paycheck, Shannon Fehrholz frets like so many others about how she will get her family through economic turmoil.

For the past six weeks, the Springfield, Ill., mother of a 4-year-old girl has tapped the family's rapidly dwindling savings to pay for groceries, daycare and other bills, including the car loan. Her home needs a new roof, and her Illinois National Guard husband won't return from duty in Afghanistan until October.

The twist is that Fehrholz isn't unemployed, though she's working for free in Illinois along with dozens of regional school superintendents and their assistants whose salaries were abruptly eliminated by Gov. Pat Quinn in a budget dispute in a cash-strapped state.

She and her colleagues have trudged to work out of a feeling of necessity, insisting their jobs in the offices are crucial as the school year's start approaches. But Quinn sees the jobs as bureaucratic and best paid for locally.

"Emotionally, I'm drained," Fehrholz, an assistant regional superintendent for Sangamon County schools, told The Associated Press. "I try not to think I'm not getting paid, and I try not to let the money aspect invade my thoughts too much during the day. But it's constantly in the back of my mind."

Such worries have mounted since Quinn in early July vetoed the funding of more than $11 million in salaries and operational costs for the regional offices. The Democratic governor had suggested the same cut in March when he presented his budget proposal, but lawmakers rejected the idea.

The move spawned lingering resentment by many of the 44 regional school chiefs -- paid $88,000 to more than $100,000 a year -- and their affected assistants, many convinced that Quinn made the cuts with no warning and little understanding of the importance of their offices' duties as a liaison between the state and the school districts they serve.

Quinn's office argues that the superintendents could be paid from the "personal property replacement tax," which corporations and business partnerships pay instead of local property taxes. State government collects the money as an income tax and sends it to schools, cities, counties and other local governments.

Since that solution would require legislative action, it won't be decided at least until October, when lawmakers return to Springfield. Quinn wants lawmakers to address the issue when they come back.

Until then, Quinn is defending his move, casting the superintendents' jobs as "administrative overhead and bureaucrats that aren't really central to the process of children learning from their teachers" in Illinois, which he said last year shaved $150 million out of the state's education budget.

"I don't feel any sense of guilt" in vetoing the funds last month, he told the AP on Friday at the Illinois State Fair. When it comes to the regional superintendents, "I'm willing to let local people decide whether they want that office, but I think it should be supported by local tax dollars, dollars that come to local government."

Among their responsibilities, the superintendents administratively inspect schools, check employee backgrounds, certify teachers, and train and permit bus drivers.

"I think he (Quinn) is ill-advised, and I think he's made a very poor decision," said Bob Daiber, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents' president who holds one of the regional posts in Madison County, near St. Louis. "We're really not bureaucrats."

As Quinn's office and Daiber's group search out alternative sources of funding, 37-year-old Fehrholz frets about the $2,400 paychecks she's been missing as her household's breadwinner. And she worries her plight on the homefront could endanger her husband by making him distracted at a time his focus should be squarely on his combat duty in Afghanistan.

"I'm hoping there's an end in sight, sooner rather than later," she said. "My fear is that it's going to continue to drag on until the General Assembly comes back to the veto session in October. People cannot go four months without a paycheck.

"Once our savings are depleted, I'm not sure what we'll do."

Fehrholz finds her plight as a military wife especially puzzling, given Quinn's longstanding advocacy for veterans. Quinn counters that it's strictly a "policy decision" over how regional school chiefs should be paid.

"Are we going to do it with state funding, and take money away from children in the classroom, or can that be paid for by local folks who want to have that office?" he said Friday.

The lost paychecks have socked Monte Newlin equally hard. The former Hutsonville high school principal hasn't been paid since July 1 for his roughly $102,000-a-year job as the Olney-based regional schools chief for five southeastern Illinois counties.

He has turned to food stamps to feed his stay-at-home wife and their 3-year-old triplets. And he has accepted a $50 handout from neighbors, applied for health insurance through state public assistance and has taken out two unsecured bank loans to cover the checks he's missed, all the while worried he may lose the family's Hutsonville house.

Getting a second job is not an option; state statute bars elected regional school chiefs from supplementing their income. And he can't get unemployment because he technically still has a job.

After a quarter century in education, "never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be in this position," he said, wondering if the economic hardship could force him to walk away from his regional job to find other work. "It's a fine line I'm trying to walk, and it depends on the day how you teeter.

"The kicker is that this all is so unnecessary. Pay us and let us do our job. If the governor has an issue, fine. Fight that out in the Legislature, but don't use us as pawns in your game of chess."


Associated Press writer John O'Connor contributed to this report from Springfield.



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