Just four years ago, Illinois’ second-largest school district spent $775,000 to install a state-of-the-art telephone system.

But it might cost Elgin School District U46 another six figures if it has to comply with a new state law requiring equipment that indicates the exact origin in a building of a 911 emergency call.

“It’s $20,000 for the equipment right out of the chute, and that’s just for us to be able to start inputting all the locations for all the extensions,” said Donna Moyers, the school district’s operations coordinator. That likely would require hiring a consultant to do months of work.

Some lawmakers say they didn’t intend for the law to include schools and churches, and they plan to push for a legislative change this fall. But they must overcome the opposition of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who believes schools, which have been hit by violent incidents around the country in recent years, are a natural for so-called “enhanced 911” service.

“If school districts want to suffer the risk of a Columbine-like incident and then blame that on cost, I think that reflects some illogical thinking,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

A law requiring “E911” systems in businesses, which took effect July 1 after several years of delays and negotiations, doesn’t specifically include schools and nonprofit organizations, but it doesn’t exclude them, either.

The E911 equipment indicates to emergency crews the number of the phone from which the call is coming and the exact location in the building, such as “north wing” or “42nd floor.” Every 40,000 square feet of business space needs to have a separate location identifier.

School administrators say schools are small enough and there are few enough phones that emergencies must be reported through the school’s office and emergency crews can be directed immediately to the scene of the problem.

“If we call 911 for some reason, we’ve got somebody out waiting on that ambulance or that fire truck,” said Moyers, whose district’s buildings encompass a total of 4.4 million square feet. “That’s just a given at any location we’re at in this district.”

The Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates telephone systems, tried to include schools in the rules for implementing the law, believing the law required it. The legislative panel that must approve administrative rules put the rules pertaining to schools on hold, saying the law didn’t mandate school compliance. In June, the rules were suspended for six months—enough time for lawmakers to make a change in the fall veto session.

“It may only be $5,000, but that is not a minor expense to a rural school district running on a total budget of $10 million,” said Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, who failed last spring to get through the House a Senate-passed bill that delayed E911 implementation because of the school issue.

“One size does not fit all. The Hancock building, those skyscrapers in Chicago, nobody gets concerned about” forcing them to comply, he said.

The Illinois School Management Alliance, a statewide umbrella group representing associations of school boards, school administrators, school business officials, and principals, found in a survey that schools would have to pay an average $62,850 to comply with the E911 requirement.

For 367 school districts that responded, compliance costs ranged from $3,000 to $480,000; 72 percent of the buildings in those districts are larger than 40,000 square feet.

“A lot of the districts that responded had new phone systems, either newly installed or upgraded within the last five years, and they’re still being told by vendors they had to totally upgrade their systems to handle these [E911] locators,” management alliance lobbyist Ben Schwarm said.

Schwarm and ICC 911 program director Rick Gasparin are reviewing school cost estimates to find a solution. Gov. George Ryan agrees with stalling implementation of school compliance to study the situation further, spokesman Dave Urbanek said.

Black contends that if no compromise is reached, the state might be stuck with paying for school compliance because the law doesn’t exempt state officials from the cost.

Links:

Elgin School District U46
http://www.u46.k12.il.us

Illinois Commerce Commission
http://www.icc.state.il.us