School Money Now A Central Issue In State Budget Impasse | WBEZ
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School Money Now A Central Issue In State Budget Impasse

Illinois lawmakers are still deciding on how to pay for the state’s public schools in September.

It’s a central part of an overall state budget, and last year, despite never passing a full budget, legislators did manage to release money to schools. It’s not clear if the same will happen this year, and that’s causing a lot of angst for many school superintendents.

“District improvement doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a great deal of planning where you’re going to allocate your resources and an investment in staff,” said Mary Havis, Superintendent of Berwyn South District 100.

“Short term Band-Aids each year just makes it difficult to show growth and show improvement within a district,” Havis said.

This year, Havis is facing a budget cut of $1.5 million, assuming the state approves an education budget that would at least maintain last year’s funding levels.

This week, the bare minimum of Democratic House members approved a spending plan that includes an overall increase in state spending on education and also kicks in $100 million to Chicago Public Schools’ underfunded teacher retirement system. It’s not yet clear this spending plan has the support of Senate Democrats.

Meantime, Senate Democrats have approved a massive rewrite of the math formula that determines how much state money will go toward each school. Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) has said the House of Representatives would take up a different measure than the one that passed the Senate.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool praised both pieces of legislation. The extra money would come at a critical time for the city’s schools, which face a $1 billion deficit, largely due to the nearly $1 billion it owes pension payments and other debt service.

And adding to the high stakes drama of how best to fund public education in Illinois, most Republicans have rejected both actions by the House and Senate, including Gov. Bruce Rauner.

As of Thursday night, legislative leaders gave no indication of a grand compromise that would give school superintendents a better idea of the state support they’d receive for next school year. Instead, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said Democratic leaders agreed to negotiate more in private working groups.

“The sense of urgency is palpable and hopefully that’ll propel us toward a solution before the end of session,” Radogno said.

The top leaders of both parties met in private in the governor’s office Thursday afternoon, while Chicago Public Schools students gathered behind a velvet rope outside the office doors chanting, “What do we want? Fair funding. When do we want it? Now.”

Claypool said he had no plans to meet with legislative leaders while he was in Springfield.

“At the end of the day, the House and Senate will reconcile what their ultimate goal is,” Claypool said. “Each house of the chambers has passed forward a big step forward for educational equity. That’s the most important thing. The details will be worked out between the chambers.”

Other superintendents are less hopeful.

“I have zero confidence that Springfield will get its act together,” said Kevin Russell, Superintendent of Chicago Ridge District 127.5. “I think the last couple of years have proved that. So we will be budgeting for the worst-case scenario.”

If the state doesn’t approve an education budget, there are many districts currently in deficit spending that would face the possibility of not opening in the fall. Russell said thankfully, Chicago Ridge isn’t one of them.

“We would be able to open our doors because we’ve done what the state has told us to do, which is save money for a rainy day,” he said. “Unfortunately, the money we have in our savings accounts is not to bail out Springfield.”

And when it comes to equity, the districts that would close also serve students with the highest need. Because of the way the current formula is set up, wealthier districts get very little funding from the state. Most of their school money comes from local property tax dollars.

Those places won’t be impacted much, if at all, by the uncertainty in Springfield.

Ray Lechner, superintendent of Wilmette School District 39, said if legislators and the governor do not approve an education budget, it would not cause his district a problem in the short term.

Becky Vevea and Tony Arnold are Education and State Politics reporters for WBEZ.

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