A small school district in southern Illinois is fighting with the state over thousands of dollars, but this dispute doesn’t stem from the ongoing budget crisis in Springfield.
It’s all over the heartbreaking death of a hometown law enforcement officer who was killed in the line of duty late last October.
James Brockmeyer, 22, was a graduate of Chester High School.
He went on to serve his community as a police officer and volunteer firefighter. But he lost his life on the job in a crash while he was pursuing a suspect that authorities said initiated the pursuit.
“It was an absolutely huge deal. We had the region’s first responders, the state’s. They came from across the Midwest. The governor was at the funeral,” said Kelton Davis, the Regional Superintendent of Schools for Monroe and Randolph Counties.
Chester Community Schools had to act quickly and decided to host the services for Brockmeyer.
To accommodate the massive crowd, allow time for set-up and give students and staff a chance to attend, the district decided to dismiss early the day of the wake.
“The students that day attended for three hours. They had three hours of complete academic time,” Davis said.
But trouble arose when Davis amended the district’s calendar and submitted it to the Illinois State Board of Education.
He said, “In this instance, I approved it. The state board denied it.”
So what’s the issue?
Illinois’ school code requires special circumstances like weather or safety concerns for a child’s attendance to count if they’re in class less than five hours on a single day.
And since kids in Chester were only in class for three hours before being dismissed early, the state said they had to make up the day at the end of the year.
But that’s not all.
The state also refused to pay Chester schools $21,000 in state aid and transportation costs that it otherwise would have received.
Davis said withholding that amount is problematic given the district is already owed money from the cash-strapped state.
“That is real money. That is money that has been budgeted for this year and expected to be paid this year for bills that need to be paid,” he said.
Davis said he tried to resolve the issue with attorneys for the state board of education. But he said they didn’t see an opportunity for interpretation in the state statute.
Now, he said the matter is tied up in Springfield.
A new bill is moving through the Illinois House that would make attendance exceptions for schools that host memorials or funerals for community members.
“It’s important not just for Chester, but our smaller communities," Davis said. "And the majority of our school districts are smaller.”
The bill, Davis added, would be retroactive if it passes. He said students wouldn’t have to make up the early dismissal day and the district would receive its money.
Statement from Illinois State Board of Education:
We sympathize with the family of the fallen officer and the school district community. Unfortunately the Chester School District has not met the minimum number attendance days required by the School Code, which does result in a loss of State payments to the district (105 ILCS 5/18-12). Currently there is not a provision in law that allows the agency to waive this penalty. Agency staff have been working closely with the school district and local elected officials to find a way to avoid the penalty - including applying for a waiver of the School Code and through legislation - House Amendment 1 to House Bill 1254.