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State takes over schools in Ill. city

The state has taken over the city's school district to relieve it of financial problems so crushing that students often can't get hot lunches and hall monitors carry whistles because the fire alarms don't work.

The plan to run the finances of the 14,000-student district in this desperately poor city was unanimously approved Thursday by the state Board of Education.

The district, which has been in trouble for years, is $10-million in debt and has a severe shortage of teachers.

Students struggle to learn in overcrowded classrooms with equipment that often is older than their parents. The district's finances are in such disarray that it recently discovered that health insurance premiums were being paid for dead employees.

"This is not a punitive action. This is a helping action," said state schools Superintendent Joseph Spagnolo. "I believe this is in the best interest of the children of East St. Louis."

District officials argued they were making progress and should be allowed to continue without a state takeover.

The move lets the state board bring in more teachers, approve contracts and set financial policy.

Classes this fall started with 50 fewer teachers and about half the cafeteria staff. At some schools, students eat cold lunches and are warehoused in gyms.

"We just sit in the bleachers and look stupid," said Dionta Heard, 16, who doesn't have English class because there is no teacher.

The city of 41,000 has been in a downward slide since the 1960s, with unemployment that some state analysts said could be as high as 37 percent. Several years ago, the city couldn't afford to pay its workers or pick up trash.