By Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – Dozens of Illinois school districts are looking to Springfield for help with their budgets and looking at driver's education as a stop gap.
Legislators are considering 67 requests from local schools who are seeking waivers from one or more of the dozens of rules that Illinois requires. About half of the requests, 33, focus on drivers education. Most of those requests ask for permission to raise the fee that schools charge students to become a new driver. But one school district is making a first of its kind request.
DeKalb's Community School District 428 wants to opt-out of behind the wheel driving classes. The district's Andrea Gorla, assistant superintendent for finance, said DeKalb would still teach students about driving in the classroom, but would "outsource" the driving time to a private company.
"We looked at out budget programmatically to see what are we offering that we do not have to offer."
State law requires both classroom and driving time for new drivers, which is why Gorla said the district has to ask permission for a waiver.
The Illinois State Board or Education said this is the first time a school district has requested permission to end drive-time teaching.
Gorla said the local school board wants a balanced budget, and it was either drivers ed or something else. DeKalb schools lose $230,000 a year by offering drivers ed, Gorla said – that's about the cost of four teachers. Gorla admits if they are allowed to opt-out of behind the wheel classes, a drivers ed teacher may lose their job. But she said the district hopes to then fill a job for all day kindergarten at one of the district's elementary schools.
But DeKalb is also asking for a drivers education fee increase, from $200 to $400. State law sets the fee at $50 dollars and schools have to ask permission to raise it. The State Board says most fees range from $125 to $250. Last year a district asked to raise their driver's ed fee to $750 but were turned down.
Gorla said DeKalb's proposal is an "either or" not an "and."
"If the state does not grant us our waiver…then at least allow us to increase the fee."
State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-DeKalb, said DeKalb is trying to get creative in the face of tough a tough budget reality.
"We must remember that driver's education at an age earlier than age 17 is a privilege, it's not a right. Therefor we've got to look at ways of providing that [so that it] does not detract from proving education funding."
But not every lawmaker is convinced. State Rep. David Reis, R-Olney, said he's leery of approving fee increase for schools just trying to find a buck.
"Where is the cost [for providing driver's ed] at? How are some schools doing it for $50? Are they just subsidizing it through their local budgets?"
The State Board of Education said many schools are charging more and more to cover the rising costs of driver's ed. But those fees hikes still don't cover everything. Lawmakers have 60 days to act on the waiver requests. If the legislature does not say no to the requests, or single items, then the waivers are automatically granted.