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State budget only one part of the puzzle for funding state schools

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Friday, July 14, 2017  |  Article  |  Isaac Smith

Budget--State (8) , Education Funding (36a) , Education--Elementary and Secondary (36)

DU QUOIN — There was a palpable sigh of relief throughout the state July 6 as the Illinois House voted to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a proposed budget deal, ending the state’s historic budget stalemate.

As relieved as many were, state educators are left holding their breath — despite outlining funds to be delivered to state schools, there is no approved funding formula to match the language in the state’s budget.

“The problem with the budget is the evidence-based model has not been passed yet,” said Gary Kelly, superintendent of Du Quoin Community Unit School District 300. He said this leaves area schools in limbo.

Kelly said his district, though they are not sure when the funding formula will be signed into law, will be able to start school on time, but he knows it will be a struggle for some. He said their property tax payments will come in with enough time to send them into the school year.

The funding model in question is a needs-based system that would score districts based on various factors, including property values and population. Kelly said it was designed to help districts like his that have high populations of poverty and low property tax values. Senate Bill 1 was approved by both the House and Senate at the end of May, but has not been sent to the governor, who has pledged to veto the bill.

Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said the governor has no problems with the core of the bill, its needs-based funding model, but he does disapprove of the way the bill also lumps into the formula funds to pay for pensions for Chicago’s public school system.

“The pension issue should be addressed outside the school funding bill,” Purvis said. She said Rauner believes it to be unfair that Chicago Public Schools would receive credit for their pensions as part of their base funding, drawing these funds away from in-need school districts.

“By giving Chicago Public Schools that credit, it diverts money, as much as $100 million a year, from other tier one and tier two schools,” Purvis said. She added that in the past, CPS received block grants from the state to pay their pensions, but added that in 11 of the last 25 years, the school system either did not pay or partially paid on their pension plans.

“The governor absolutely wants schools to open on time,” she said, but added that with the Senate holding the bill back for review, they are “creating a crisis” that could force a situation where the school year would start without funding being freed up from the state. Purvis said the governor wants the bill to come across his desk to have the conversation.

Purvis said there is a second bill making its way through the Senate, SB1124, which separates pensions from the regular funding bill, and uses very similar language to SB1 when it comes to the needs-based formula. She said this bill is in the spirit of something the governor would sign.

The damage is done

Mike Goodman had his last meeting with the Chester School Board as superintendent of Chester School District 139 in June. He resigned after 18 months on the job. He said the budget struggles over the past two years wore him down.

Goodman said he made the decision to come out of retirement and lead the district because his heart beats to educate.

“I was doing it because I love education,” Goodman said. That said, though, Goodman admitted that the daily battle of petitioning legislators to sign a budget, keeping concerned teachers and parents at ease and trying to find creative ways to shave pennies off a dollar got the better of him.

“I was extremely frustrated. That basically started day one,” Goodman said.

Goodman said he’s pleased that there is a budget and looks forward to seeing that help area schools, but he said the damage has been done.

“It’s going to take some time,” Goodman said, adding that he knows the schools are likely not to feel flush any time soon. “I know the state’s not going to just flood all these school districts with money,” he said.

When he left, Goodman said the schools had accrued $900,000 in debt over two years because of reduced or inconsistent funding coming from the state. He said this is not a good way to do business.

“You are borrowing money to pay past bills and when you are paying past bills then, you know, there’s a good chance that the new bills that come in you are going to be in the same situation at the end of the school year,” Goodman said, admitting that this was not unlike using a credit card to pay down a mortgage.

There are other long-term effects beyond financials that have to be recognized, too, Goodman said. In his last meeting with the board, he recommended that the district consider limiting supplies teachers could use that were not directly related to instruction. This meant making due with old chairs and tables and even limiting some extracurriculars. Coupled with no raises, Goodman said this could be demoralizing for teachers and left him deflated.

“Mentally, that was difficult on me because there was no money there that we could give people pay raises,” Goodman said. He said he knew some of the lower-paid employees were essentially working for health insurance as the majority if not all of their checks would go to pay for premiums.

Ultimately, even though the budget was passed within weeks of his resignation, Goodman said he made the right choice to leave. From the outside looking in, though, he said he’s not sure the problem is indeed over.

“Then I worry about next year,” Goodman said. “They may start this whole argument again. It won’t surprise me a bit.”

Lorrie LeQuatte is new to her job. She was sworn in July 6 as the new regional superintendent of schools for the Regional Office of Education 21. She knows the work ahead of her, but said the recent events in Springfield leave her with a brighter outlook for education in her region.

“I'm encouraged that Illinois has a passed budget for the first time in two and a half years,” LeQuatte said.

Kelly said if the funding formula is approved, it will set schools back up to be on par financially to pre-impasse levels, and though the Du Quoin district can start on time, they “definitely we want it as soon as we can get it."

LeQuatte agrees.

“(The) SB1 funding formula will be greatly beneficial for school districts in Southern Illinois,” she said of the proposed funding model.

Regardless of how much more feet dragging there is and no matter how long the effects of the budget impasse are felt, Kelly said he always comes back to his core mission — to teach.

“Our job is to educate kids so that’s what we are going to do,” he said.