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Ten Illinois school districts, including Springfield's, won't be able to apply for a waiver next year that allows them to skip out on offering physical education five days a week.
Failure to comply could lead to penalties imposed by the Illinois State Board of Education.
In Springfield, it's a problem school officials say they are aware of, but they say they have no other choice but to disregard the mandate because it would cost millions to renovate facilities and add the PE teachers needed to be in compliance.
"It's not like we're choosing to blatantly be insubordinate. It's unfortunately one of those things where I don't know what choices we have," said Rick Sanders, director of school support for District 186.
Illinois is one of the few states in the country that requires daily PE class for students. For years, school districts got around the requirement by applying for a waiver, citing concerns such as a lack of space.
However, in 2007, lawmakers concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic curtailed that practice by passing legislation - deemed by school lobbyists as an unfunded mandate - that capped the number of waivers districts could apply for to an initial two-year term and no more than two two-year renewals.
Springfield and nine other school districts will have exhausted their waiver allotment - approved by the General Assembly - at the end of this school year, while 33 other districts have either used or are about to use their third and final waiver, according to the State Board of Education.
It could be years before any districts face severe consequences for ignoring the requirement, if they ever do.
Mary Fergus, state board spokeswoman, said Springfield and other offending districts would be placed on "Recognized Pending Further Review" status for not being compliant.
As part of that placement, the state board would ask the regional office of education to work with the district on developing a plan to address the issue, she said.
School districts that continue to be noncompliant could be placed on probation and ultimately move to "Non-Recognized" status if no remediation plan is in place, putting their state funding in jeopardy, Fergus said.
She said the state board is aware of concerns and is working internally on the issue. There has already been one exception though, Fergus noted.
The O'Fallon School District in the St. Louis metro area received a two-year waiver this year despite being placed on "Recognized Pending Further Review" for violating daily PE requirements after exhausting its waiver allotment.
"We recognize that some districts have inadequate facilities and it would take millions of dollars to repair or expand those facilities," Fergus said.
No viable solutions
Sanders said District 186 has studied what it could do to be in compliance but hasn't come up with any viable solutions.
Facilities and a lack of PE teachers are the biggest hurdles, he said.
At the elementary level, many of the gymnasiums double as cafeterias. Trying to have PE while students are eating breakfast or lunch isn't safe or feasible, Sanders said.
There also are issues with not having enough locker rooms at the middle and high schools, Sanders added.
In all, he said, it would likely cost millions to renovate existing facilities. And at a time when the school board just cut $5.5 million to balance the budget for next school year, finding the money would be next to impossible.
Meanwhile, Sanders said, the district would need to hire more than a dozen additional PE teachers. At the elementary level - composed of 22 buildings - it would cost $800,000 more per year, based on a study the district conducted into expanding its physical education offerings.
The district currently employs between 41 and 43 PE teachers.
"Frankly, I'm a strong believer of physical activity, adequate nutrition and daily rest for our kids," Sanders said. "But to come up with that amount of money is just challenging for our district."
Physical education in District 186 varies from grade level to grade level and school to school, often requiring a creative approach by teachers and principals.
Sanders said Springfield's elementary schools have PE twice a week for 30 minutes and daily activity in the classroom, but the schedule varies for middle school students, who generally get a semester of PE per year.
At the high schools, freshmen have daily PE, sophomores have a semester of PE and a semester of health, and students take one more semester of PE before graduation.
Each school has its advantages and disadvantages as well, Sanders said. Both Springfield and Lanphier high schools, for example, have several gymnasiums. However, Southeast has only one gym, but with a walkway around the top.
Sanders said the district tries to maximize what physical education time students do have.
The district conducts what's known as "Enhanced PE" in which students spend at least 50 percent of their time in moderate to vigorous physical activity.
"It used to be as long as you dress and stand in a field, you get your grade," Sanders said. "Now it's more important to be physically active."
Officials: Too many mandates
In light of all the school districts' limitations, it's unclear whether lawmakers will take another look at the caps on physical education waivers.
Mike Chamness, director of communications for the Illinois Association of School Administrators, said he wasn't aware of any push to repeal the law this session.
When lawmakers approved scaling back on the waivers in 2007, the state board remained neutral, Fergus said. The board has expressed concern about the frequency of some PE waivers but also supports local control, she said.
Chamness called the cap on PE waivers one of more than 100 unfunded mandates school districts face.
"School districts are put in a position where they have no choice but to not comply with mandates," he said. "What we are saying is: Don't have arbitrary caps. Judge each case on merit."
Contact Jason Nevel: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1521, twitter.com/JasonNevelSJR.