Local school leaders weigh in on state funding debate

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD — As support for Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory veto fell flat in the Illinois House Wednesday, school leaders say a resolution is vital as students return to the classroom for 2017-18 academic year.

“Education funding reform is a necessity, and we need a swift resolution,” Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Ehren Jarrett told The Times. “Senate Bill 1 is imperfect, but it’s a huge step toward bringing additional resources to RPS 205 students from low-income households. The bill brings Rockford’s students closer to the educational adequacy target.”

After the Senate voted last Sunday to override the governor’s veto, Democrats introduced a new bill Wednesday that included a few of Rauner’s changes on which lawmakers in the House could not agree. The sticking point continues to be the governor’s proposal to cut $450 million from Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Rauner claims the plan to redistribute those cuts to districts throughout the state is fair. Opponents say the consequences—long-term offsets—are too costly. Under Rauner’s plan, districts with declining enrollments would be penalized in the future.

“Right now, because there is no funding bill that has been passed, we are not receiving the state funding we need to run the schools — which is a first in Illinois history,” Belvidere Superintendent Dr. Daniel Woestman said.

Under SB1, Belvidere would receive $32,729,140, but $35,634,296 under Rauner’s amended plan for the first year. Rockford is tapped for $131,507,048 in the original bill.

South Beloit Superintendent Scott Fisher is seeking an evidence-based funding formula. Senate Bill 1 puts his district in Tier 1, a category for the state’s most-needy school districts.

“We do not receive as much from local taxes as most district because of our low equalized value assessment in South Beloit,” Fisher said.

South Beloit stands to receive between $300,000 and $600,000 depending on which bill is passed.

“This money would be a huge infusion into our district budget and put us on a more equal footing as surrounding districts who have a much higher local tax base,” Fisher added.

The school funding impasse is a first for Illinois, but it is not a mark that officials are proud to set. To some, the state is still in crisis mode following a budget deadlock that lasted two years and still has not begun to iron itself out.

“(It) puts our school districts in a situation not conducive to planning for future years,” Hononegah Superintendent Lynn Gibson said. “We ask that our governor and legislators stand together for our Illinois children’s educational futures. If Illinois is going to be unprecedented, let’s make sure we are unprecedented in a stable, sustainable funding system for our school districts.”

The majority of education unions, including the Illinois Education Association (IEA), support SB1. The IEA, in a statement announcing an Aug. 23 SB1 rally in Springfield, calls the plan a “compromise bill that will help equalize funding across the state to help ensure students have a fighting chance at success.”

House Republicans called Wednesday’s 0-60 House vote a “sham.” A defeat of the amended legislation is still possible by Aug. 29. R.

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