Illinois budget crisis prompts “brain drain” in Galesburg

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GALESBURG -- Fallout from the state budget crisis continues to hurt public schools in Illinois.

While districts are getting a full year of funding, Galesburg is losing students and teachers to private schools and neighboring states. School officials say without state funding reforms for education, this "brain drain" will continue to have serious consequences.

With every hit at volleyball practice, enrollment is spiking at Galesburg Christian School.

"We are completely full," said Administrator Bob Nutzhorn.  "I have two classes that I can fit some more bodies in, but that's it."

Just days before classes start, this small private school is adding 52 students.

That's enough to double its student body in just four years.

"Families are looking us up and really buying into what we're doing," Nutzhorn said.

Some of the new students come because of state cuts at public schools.  Cuts that slice everything from pre-school to driver education programs.

"It's hard to go to school every day just not knowing what's going to happen, and that's tough," he said.

As youngsters at Silas Willard School make a big entrance to start classes, Galesburg's District 205 is losing 83 students.

"We need that money to provide the programs that our families and kids expect," said Jon Bradburn, a former principal who serves as the district's human resources director.

In cash-strapped Illinois, this district faces a deficit and tough decisions looming about cuts and closing buildings.

"It has an impact as far as parents looking at where they can go where schools don't have to worry about funding," he continued.

The Illinois budget crisis forced Galesburg and several surrounding districts to consider a doomsday scenario of starting late and graduating early.

That prospect frightens families worried about everything from sports cancellations to missed college requirements.

"I want a complete year, a full year," said Dolores Donaldson, a retired teacher and grandparent.  "No stopping in February. None of that."

Kindergarten teacher Cheryl Hager knows both sides.

"Teaching is my passion," she said.

She spent 38 years in Galesburg public schools and remembers the atmosphere.

"We focused more on what school is going to close, the teachers that were going to be let go and what programs were going to be cut," she remembered.

Returning to teaching at Costa Catholic Academy, she notices a world of difference.

"Every day is about teaching and children's learning," she said.

Galesburg warns it will keep losing students without state funding reforms.

District 205 even started the year with some unfilled teaching and staff jobs.

Some applicants feel more secure working in neighboring states. Others are taking roughly half the pay to teach in private schools rather than worry about layoffs.

"There's no job security," said Hager.  "Here, there is job security, and that's huge."

What's bad for Illinois public schools may be good for private schools.

Costa Catholic Academy added space in recent years while Galesburg Christian School considers a major expansion.

"We often say that Galesburg Christian School is the best-kept secret in Galesburg," Nutzhorn concluded.

With each serve at volleyball practice, offering an alternative to state troubles.