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An Illinois budget can't come soon enough for the state's public schools

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Wednesday, July 5, 2017  |  Article  |  By Kristen Taketa

Budget--State (8) , Education Funding (36a)
Funding relief that Illinois schools need to start this new school year may arrive as soon as this week, if the state can finally enact a budget that was supposed to be finished five days ago but is more than two years overdue.

The tardiness has left many schools feeling exhausted by financial uncertainties that have come to characterize the last several years of public education in Illinois. Even if a budget is approved Thursday, school leaders say, much of the damage will be felt for years.

“It is our state who is failing us at epic levels,” said Jill Griffin, superintendent of the Bethalto School District in Madison County, which has about 2,500 students. “It’s on the backs of our kids that this is happening.”

School officials and parents have been pleading the state to fund their schools in time to start classes next month. They have held town halls, testified at legislative hearings and made their pleas on Twitter. Superintendents representing more than 400 school districts have signed onto a letter calling for a fully-funded budget.

The budget can be enacted as soon as Thursday if the House overrides Gov. Bruce Rauner’s vetoes. School adminstrators are antsy because, if the budget is for some reason delayed much longer and they continue without state funding, schools may not be able to stay open for more than a few weeks past the first day of school, or may not be able to open at all.

"We’re just hopeful that the Legislature and the governor will be able to provide a solution for us," said Jeff Dosier, superintendent of Belleville Township School District. "I'm still optimistic. I think we have to remain optimistic."

Damage done

The current budget package allocates an additional $350 million of basic state aid to schools, in addition to increases of $65 million for transportation, $50 million for early childhood education and $29 million for bilingual education.

But schools say that still doesn’t make up for the millions of state dollars that districts were supposed to receive, but never did in the past several years.

For years, Illinois has prorated, or withheld general funding it was required to provide to schools. That’s on top of more than $1 billion the state also owed to schools last fiscal year for transportation, special education, food service and other state-mandated “categorical” obligations, which the budget package will help to at least partially restore.

That means school districts have gone without as much as millions of dollars they were told to expect, such as Belleville School District, which was owed $2.3 million from the state last fiscal year, and Belleville Township, which was owed about $3 million.

Years of making do with less funding have left wounds that officials say will take years to heal. Staffing has been cut, classrooms have ballooned in size and some districts have dipped themselves into debt.

“I wouldn’t say all of our problems would go away,” said Dan Cox, superintendent of the Staunton School District in Madison County. “Some of the damage that’s been done, we’ll never recover from.”

For example, the Bethalto School District, which has about 2,500 students, has cut more than eight teaching positions, one administrator position and support staff benefits, hours and positions to make ends meet, Griffin said. Even after those cuts, the district borrowed $1.3 million, then issued a $2 million line of credit to make sure it could continue paying the bills.

The state owed Bethalto $900,000 for transportation and special education this past fiscal year. That’s on top of roughly $6 million the state was supposed to pay the district in the last six years, but never did.

Illinois owed more than $200,000 in categorical funding to the Staunton School District, on top of $2 million the district has lost since 2012 due to proration, according to Superintendent Cox.

Some of the textbooks at Staunton schools are more than 20 years old, he said. Some classrooms have no textbooks at all. There are “little to no” counseling services available for students.

“We’ve reduced classroom supplies, teaching staff, support staff, administrative staff,” Cox said. “We’re just, quite frankly, doing more with less at a time when our families are experiencing more hardships and our students have greater and growing needs.”

A new funding formula?

Along with the state budget, still up in the air is a bill that would overhaul Illinois’ school funding model for the first time in decades.

Schools say the new funding model would, for the first time in the state’s history, tie school funding to levels based on what research says is needed to adequately educate students. It’s also meant to ensure that schools with more high-needs students, such as students living in poverty and students with disabilities, get more funding.

The model requires the state to calculate a required level of funding for every district based on the district’s needs, then provide enough funding for the district to meet that target, minus local funding such as property tax revenue that the district already receives.

The model is outlined in Senate Bill 1 and has been awaiting Rauner's action since May.

For years, Illinois’ school funding system has been called one of the most inequitable in the country for favoring wealthy districts that benefit from high property tax revenue. In April, 17 Illinois school districts sued the state for failing to fund schools at a level that they believe was required to meet the standards the state imposed on them. This new funding model is supposed to help change that, advocates say.

“They’ve been trying to fix this formula for 20 years, and this is the closest we’ve ever gotten,” Cox said. “It’s going to be adequate and it’s going to be equitable.”