Jim Dey: No telling when — or if — school funding will change

Jim Dey: No telling when — or if — school funding will change

Changes to Illinois' complicated public school funding formula that would provide more aid to school districts in need is an idea whose time has come, according to supporters.

But just when it will arrive — this month, this year, next year or not at all — is the big question in Springfield, where legislators face a May 31 election year adjournment. Despite that, increased attention, particularly among school administrators throughout the state, is focused on SB 16, legislation sponsored by state Sen. Andy Manar that would overturn the status quo and replace it with a dramatically new funding formula.

"This issue will not go away," said Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill. "We can't have a state system with a few premier school districts while the others lag behind."

While the specifics of the legislation are subject to change, the Illinois State Board of Education last week issued figures demonstrating how Illinois' 800-plus school districts would fare under Manar's initial proposal.

As a matter of principle, the legislation is aimed at providing more state aid to poorer districts and less aid to wealthier ones. That means there will be definite winners and losers, pitting downstate, the suburbs and Chicago against each other. At the same time, however, there will be winners and losers within the districts of state legislators.

A review of the 37 school systems in the district of state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, revealed that 26 districts would receive more state aid and 11 less. It's a similar situation in the district of state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign. He has 15 districts, eight of them winners and seven losers under the formula.

The Urbana schools would receive an additional $4 million under the revised formula, a change that Superintendent Don Owen called a "very nice boost." Aside from that, Owen said he's encouraged that the goal of the legislation is "equitable funding."

Danville schools would receive an additional $5 million in state aid, an increase that would help ease pressure on local property taxes to fund the schools.

"I certainly think the Manar formula or something like it is something to take a look at," said Superintendent Mark Denman. "I think most of your downstate superintendents would tell you that."

In contrast, Champaign schools would lose $770,000, a prospect that dismayed Superintendent Judy Wiegand.

"You'd have to either cut services or find another funding source," said Wiegand, who characterized the problem as "trying to reshuffle limited funds."

The legislation is the result of a study conducted by a bipartisan special Senate committee that was led by Manar and included state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington. So far, Barickman is lukewarm to the legislation.

To attract more bipartisan support, Manar is proposing amendments. But he said he hopes the full Senate will approve a final version this week and then send the bill to the Illinois House, where it faces an uncertain future.

So far, neither Gov. Pat Quinn nor House Speaker Michael Madigan has paid much public attention to the issue, prompting some Republicans to suggest the legislation is going nowhere, at least for the short term.

Time will tell on that point. In the meantime, Manar has focused on the bill's specifics.

Illinois appropriated $6.7 billion for K-12 funding for the current fiscal year. But only 44 percent of that amount went to general state aid, the remaining 56 percent consumed by special funding categories. Republicans have complained in the past that special categorical spending allows Chicago public schools to benefit disproportionately to the tune of $600 million a year.

Manar's legislation would reduce the number of funding categories from seven to three — general state aid, early childhood and special education. The result would be that 90-plus percent of school funding would go for general state aid based on financial need.

Among Sen. Frerichs' districts, Rantoul City Schools would gain $2.6 million while Rantoul High School would lose $32,000. Westville would gain $1.2 million and Georgetown $1 million. The University of Illinois Lab School would lose $88,000 and the Prairieview-Ogden district would lose $96,000.

Among Rose's districts, Mahomet-Seymour would gain $3.1 million while Monticello would lose $740,000 and Clinton would lose $1.9 million. Tolono would gain $167,000 and Tuscola $18,000.

Among Manar's 27 districts, 19 school districts would receive more money and eight less money. His big gainers include Taylorville, $1 million; Bunker Hill, $427,000, Gillespie, $2.8 million; and Litchfield, $1 million.

In addition to phasing in gains and losses over three years, Manar said he wants to modify the proposed new formula so some districts won't be so hard hit, perhaps by placing a cap on the amount of reduced spending per student. Other changes under consideration include making it easier for school districts to avoid state mandates that unnecessarily consume time and money.

But a formula is just that; it doesn't take the place of cold, hard cash Illinois doesn't have.

Danville's superintendent noted that state finances are so bad that his schools are still owed $3.1 million from the past two years.

"That's enough to run one of our elementary schools for a year," said Denman.

Wiegand said Champaign has received $8.7 million (89 percent) of its promised $9.8 million.

Short-changing districts is a secondary issue in the funding formula debate. But it re-emphasizes the damage caused by the state's myriad financial woes; it hardly matters what the formula is if there's not enough money to go around.

Right now, Urbana doesn't have enough available cash to buy new textbooks or additional equipment for its technology programs. Asked what Urbana schools would do with an additional $4 million, Chief Financial Officer Carol Baker said "we might not be deficit spending like we have for the past two years."

In that respect, the funds/funding formula issue under discussion in Springfield comes across more as empty rhetoric than reason for hope.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Urbana's Owen. "But we've heard of many efforts to deal with funding reform."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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