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Earmarked ag education dollars at risk in Will, Grundy schools

Seneca Future Farmers of America students watch a surgery being performed Aug. 7, 2014, at the Animal Care Hospital in Morris. Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed zeroing out funding for agriculture education in the upcoming fiscal 2017 budget.
Seneca Future Farmers of America students watch a surgery being performed Aug. 7, 2014, at the Animal Care Hospital in Morris. Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed zeroing out funding for agriculture education in the upcoming fiscal 2017 budget.

Statewide enrollment in agriculture courses is at an all-time high, yet area schools are at risk of losing earmarked dollars under Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed spending cuts, according to Luke Allen, the adviser for a state program designed to enhance the ag curriculum in Illinois schools.

Rauner has proposed zeroing out a $1.8 million line item for the Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education Project, for which Allen serves as program director for District II, which includes Will and Grundy counties.

Instead, Rauner has said he wants to shift that money to General State Aid to fully fund schools for the first time in seven years and leave the decision up to local districts whether to offer agriculture classes or use those dollars how they see fit.

Nearly 1,100 high school students were enrolled in ag courses at area schools during the 2014-15 school year, according to FCAE data.

About 60 percent of the $1.8 million helps the FCAE provide curriculum resources, teacher professional development training and on-site technical assistance.

About 8 percent funds administrative costs, such as salaries. The rest is given out as grant dollars to school districts for instructional resources.

With so much budget uncertainty at the state level, some school administrators otherwise interested in adding ag courses are shying away from the idea, Allen said.

“It’s the uncertainty surrounding state funding that keeps schools from making these decisions. If you don’t know what the state is going to reimburse, it’s hard to plan and prepare. ... Everyone is in a holding pattern, waiting for stability,” Allen said.

In an email, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly referred The Herald-News to the governor’s recent Q&A held Tuesday at the Illinois State Fairgrounds when the paper requested comment.

“We do not want to reduce funding for agriculture education in Illinois. What we’re saying is, let’s not have a lot of line items dictating terms of where money gets spent,” Rauner said at the Q&A.

Rauner has said his goal is to fully fund education for the first time in years. Area schools have lost state funding in recent years due to proration. Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 lost $443,545 in fiscal year 2016, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. Minooka Community High School District 111 lost $300,348 and Lockport Township High School District 205 lost $152,725.

Rauner has repeatedly said he wants to place more control in the hands of local school districts and that fully funding them is one way to achieve that.

“Let’s put a lot more money into schools and let the schools decide how they spend their money,” Rauner said at the fairgrounds event. “I hope a lot of the schools in Illinois put more money into agriculture, not less.”

Local impact

School districts such as Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210, Peotone School District 207-U, Dwight Public Schools, Minooka Community High School District 111, Lockport Township High School District 205 and Seneca Township High School depend on FCAE funding to maintain agricultural studies, Allen said.

About $54,000 in grant dollars has been given to schools in Will and Grundy counties over the last eight years for the construction of raised garden beds and greenhouses, and improvements to computer labs and land-and-animal lab facilities, Allen said. An additional $25,000 in community matching dollars helped pay for those projects, he said.

The Wilco Area Career Center plans to launch a new pre-veterinary science program with a $10,000 FCAE grant spread out over two years, he said.

Allen said he works closely with local schools in developing curriculum. But his position is at risk of being cut, as are the programs he helps create.

Exposure to ag careers

A cut to ag programs would mean fewer students being exposed to related careers, Grundy County Farm Bureau Manager Tasha Bunting said, even though Illinois is a leading state in agriculture-related industries. Ag-related jobs include food scientists, food packaging engineers, meat inspectors and process control technicians.

With so many career opportunities out there, exposure at a young age is key, she said.

“It really helps to shape and mold some of our youth who are thinking about a career in the ag industry,” she said.

Will County Farm Bureau Manager Mark Schneidewind said the loss of ag education funding is a “big concern.”

He said he is concerned about Rauner’s approach in erasing ag education as a line item and leaving it up to schools to decide where the money will go.

“I understand [the intent] but will that money go to agriculture?” he said.

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