SPRINGFIELD - Gov. Rod Blagojevich promised to come up with an extra $16 million to ensure that no school district loses money under his proposed education budget for the year beginning July 1, but state lawmakers from both parties are still wary.
At a rare House committee-of-the-whole meeting that lasted more than eight hours Tuesday, state representatives grilled budget director John Filan about the governor's education plan while school superintendents, parents, students and interest groups testified about its potential impacts.
Danville, Gifford, Ogden, Heritage, Rantoul, Thomasboro and Ludlow schools would all lose money next year under the plan, but the money would be replaced with part of the $16 million in transitional funding, according to the Governor's Office of Management and Budget. Budget spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the administration is not sure yet where the $16 million would come from, but "we are going to find a way."
While lawmakers were pleased to hear that their schools would not lose money next year, many questioned the estimates the governor's office is using and said much more than $16 million would be needed.
Lawmakers also questioned Blagojevich's plan to eliminate funding for regional offices of education and his proposal to collapse more than 20 separate grant funds for services like gifted education and truancy programs in order to increase the per-pupil spending minimum by $250 to $4,810.
Filan said the funding shift recognizes that the per-pupil increase is the governor's No. 1 priority in a tough budget year.
The proposal also gives districts more flexibility at the local level to decide how to best spend the money they get to meet their responsibilities, he said.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern that if the grants aren't specifically itemized, school districts may use the money for regular school operations and special groups of students, such as frequent truants, may not get the services they need.
While more than 20 special grant funds would be eliminated, Blagojevich's education budget would keep $567 million in dedicated grant funds for his pet programs, including bilingual education and the early childhood block grant. He also allotted money to reimburse districts at 91 percent for services like special education and transportation, which they are required to provide.
Filan said the governor's office would be open to fund the mandated categorical grants at 100 percent if the General Assembly could come up with the extra $124 million it would cost to do so.
However, those reimbursement rates are based on costs set back 20 years or more, and even a 100 percent reimbursement rate is not enough, former state schools superintendent Max McGee said.
Danville Superintendent Gary Tucker said there is a $3 million annual gap between the cost of providing special education in his district and the amount the state reimburses for services.
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