A bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly in late spring promises that all school districts would be “held harmless” from any funding cuts, but the reality could be that districts will be held hostage.

The funding bill is married to the budget. An income tax increase was included in the budget to help fund schools more equitably, but the tax increase is tied to an evidence based funding formula being enacted as law in the state, said Rep. Mike Unes, R-East Peoria. If a funding formula is not passed into law, the money from the income tax increase cannot be disbursed to the schools, thus a hostage situation for districts.

“This does not have to be the next crisis for the state of Illinois,” said Unes. He said some may see it that way.  He said there is a simple answer to the situation and leaders need to find it. Unes said the bill was a bipartisan effort, but at the last minute, the $300 million was placed in the funding reform bill. The governor has said he will use an amendatory veto when he gets it formally from the Senate, but that has not yet happened.

 

Local legislators thoughts

Unes said SB 1 was not the place for the Chicago Public Schools pension funding — it should have been placed with other state funding reforms later on.

“We need to keep this — regardless of what bill it is — I mean, it can be a clean bill,” said Unes. “I don’t believe we have to use, and hopefully they’re not — I don’t think they should or have to use this as a crisis. It just seems like everything has to be a crisis. This doesn’t. I think there’s an easy solution to this that would get bipartisan support.”

Unes said that the term evidence based funding is used in the budget bill, but there is no definition there of what that has to be.

He said the fact that the Senate has not sent the bill to the governor is “troubling.” He said such “games have to stop.” Rauner does not support the $300 million payment to Chicago Public Schools and calls it a bailout. Unes said that he believes the state could pay under the old funding formula.

Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, who voted in favor of the budget, said the income tax increased from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent. It was previously 5 percent under Gov. Pat Quinn., which he said is a figure Rauner was agreeable with but now condemns. Koehler said the income tax revenue should bring in from $3 billion to $4 billion in revenue to the state.

Koehler said the Senate did not send the bill because Rauner has said he will veto the bill. The governor could do an amendatory veto if the bill is sent to him as is and then the General Assembly could override the veto. 

“In all of this you have to remember that Chicago has always been treated differently,” said Koehler. “Their pension system was separate from the rest of the state.

“The state put tax dollars into, for example, the teacher’s retirement system. Chicago basically has to pay their own. So this was seen as a way to help create some parity between what Chicago is doing with what downstate schools are doing. Is it a bailout? Yes and no. It’s a change of how they are funded. They used to fund their own pension system, plus we gave them a block grant. I’ve heard various things as to whether that block grant was fair, whether it was too much or too little.”

Koehler said the issue “is probably more political than anything.” He said Chicago has only one republican legislator and with a solid Democratic block in both the House and the Senate.

“They have to deliver something for their school system as well because all schools are faced with similar kinds of pressure,” said Koehler. “It’s got to be a compromise.

“Would I like to just be able to say that we’ve got millions of dollars more for downstate schools? Yes, I would. But you know what? That’s not going to happen, because we have to deal with all of the state and we’re going to have to negotiate a compromise.”

 

Local districts

Pekin District 108 Superintendent Bill Link said he does not support the state giving $300 million to Chicago Public Schools. 

“Right now the way it’s set up the new funds that are allocated to public schools, a slice of that is going to Chicago Public Schools for that particular pension bailout,” said Link. “According to what the Governor’s office has published, if that $300 million was taken out and put back in the General State Aid pot, that would, for us, probably double what we would get through that new funding formula.

“We’re looking at probably $560,000 additional dollars. Either way it’s going to benefit us.”

The new state budget and an income tax increase to support new funding to schools, said Link, “That’s a positive step in the right direction.”

District 108 Business Manager Glayn Worrell said the added revenue would mean $1.080 million additional to District 108 if the CPS pension bailout is withdrawn.

Link said the “spirit” needs to change.

“I think the expectation should be that there should be more of a spirit of problem solving instead of the spirit of a power struggle, in my mind,” said Link. “I think our local legislators, the ones we come in contact with the most, have a very good outlook on that.

“There are a lot of good people who serve in those positions in the general assembly and want to do the right thing, but unfortunately there are those who wield the power.”

Pekin District 303 Superintendent Danielle Owens said she hoped Rauner will amend the bill to exclude the $300 million and send it back to the Senate, “but we will have to wait and see.”

“It is crazy that after all of this time that we finally have a budget that we still cannot count on money owed to us to flow through,” he said. “PCHS is still in a position that we will open regardless as we have fund balances that will allow us to do so but, once again, having to spend those down to compensate for the state not doing its job would be ridiculous. 

“I do think the new school funding formula will be a positive thing for the state and will more equitably fund schools across the state, but it is now being held hostage by money targeted for CPS, which is unfortunate. I really hope all of this ends soon so we can focus on what we should be, which is the students.”

PCHS would receive $727,431 if the money to CPS remains in the bill. Owens did not readily have figures available for what the district would get if the $300 million is excluded.

Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin