When the Illinois State Legislature passed the state’s first budget in nearly three years recently, many Illinoisans were confident that things in the state could get back to normal. For many, it was a time to let out a sigh of relief. For leaders in the state’s public schools, however, the state budget woes continue.
“I thought once we got a state budget, we’d be good,” says De Soto Consolidated School District Superintendent Nathaniel Wilson. “But when the state passed the budget, the language in the bill included the money for schools, but not the mechanism to create the formula to spend the dollars through an evidence-based funding module. The money is appropriated, but the mechanism has not yet been passed.”
That mechanism – an effort to calculate how much money each public school in the state receives – is the basis of Senate Bill 1. The bill has been approved by each chamber in the statehouse, but has not yet been sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk. The governor, Wilson says, has hinted that he will either veto the bill or enact an amendatory veto to strike provisions of the proposed law dealing with block grants to the Chicago Public School System.
“The funding formula is very important,” explains Cheryl Graff, regional superintendent of schools for Regional Office of Education 30, which includes Alexander, Jackson, Perry, Pulaski and Union counties. She says that schools receive general state aid which is a major part of individual schools’ annual budgets — often in the amount of several thousand dollars per pupil.
She says the percentage of each school’s budget comprised of state funds varies depending on other funding sources such as property tax. For example, in school districts with large property tax bases (like larger communities or more affluent places like suburban Chicago), state funding makes up a smaller fraction of total budgets. However, in many more rural districts, state dollars are the biggest part of district’s annual revenue.
“For De Soto, state general aid is about one-half of my budget,” Wilson says. For other schools, it may be just 25 percent or even a smaller number.”
Graff says that if the governor signs the bill, a new formula for calculating general state aid to public schools will go into place and funds should start flowing to the schools soon.
“Usually, the state allotment starts with payment in August and it is two payments every month,” she says.
However, Wilson explains that if the governor vetoes the measure or uses an amendatory veto to change some aspect of the bill, the entire bill has to go back to the legislature for an override vote or reconsideration as amended. Wilson doesn’t believe there are enough votes to override or approve an amended bill.
“Without a formula, those payments won’t start,” Graff adds.
The new formula is designed to provide more adequacy and equality across Illinois school districts. Districts will be classified as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 or Tier 4 according to their financial resources. The new formula, developed partially by superintendents, would distribute a larger percentage of new education funding to schools in the lower tiers — the more financially-challenged districts — so that eventually, all districts would be on a more-level playing field.
So what does it all mean for Southern Illinois schools and students? Wilson says there’s always a chance for compromise, but he is doubtful.
“If both chambers don’t approve or override and nothing happens, then the bill is dead and we’re back at square one,” he says.
“My good feeling is that they will come up with something, but my bad feeling is that we’re stuck.”
Wilson says that even without passage of SB1, some funding will come through to schools. He says that some transportation and special education funding is not included in the formula and schools will receive those funds. He expects that some districts will likely use these funds for other expenses and, when paired with cash balances, will allow enough funds to start the school year.
“I can get through about two months right now,” Wilson says. “Then hopefully, local property tax revenue will come in in late September, so I’ll be able to use that for a few more months, but if I don’t see general state aid, I can’t keep going. We are very dependent upon the state. There will be a point where the money runs out. When that is could be as early as September for some school districts, October for some, January for others.”
Graff says all of the districts she oversees are planning on opening, but stresses the need for state funding.
“If nothing happens, then the school boards and superintendents have decisions they will have to make,” she says. “They will have to decide once funds are no longer available, do they stay or turn to tax anticipation warrants – basically taking out loans on next year’s property taxes. It means more debt for the districts and more paperwork. Simply put, all of the districts are just hoping that something will be passed and that it happens soon.”