CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday signed into law sweeping changes to the way the state funds schools, calling it a historic day that will bring "more equality, more fairness and better opportunity for all the students of Illinois."
Besides distributing state aid more equitably, the long-sought deal the Legislature approved this week gives districts more flexibility on state mandates, allows residents in well-funded districts to reduce their property taxes and creates a new tax credit for donations to private school scholarships.
It also provides more than $430 million in new funding to Chicago Public Schools. That's roughly $150 million more than the amount Rauner stripped from an earlier plan and railed against as a "bailout." Asked Wednesday about the turnaround, the Republican said the measure is a compromise and includes "many of the goals I recommended."
Here's a look at the plan:
For decades, Illinois schools have relied heavily on property taxes, creating wide disparities between wealthy and poor districts.
Under the new plan, Illinois will consider how much money districts need to adequately educate their students and how much money they can generate from property taxes. State aid will be prioritized to districts that need the most help bridging the gap between those two numbers.
No school will lose money this year compared with last year.
The state will begin covering the cost of pensions for teachers in Chicago, just as Illinois does for all other districts.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Democrats who lead the Illinois House and Senate have lobbied for the change for years, saying it's unfair that Chicago taxpayers have to foot the bill for their teachers' pensions while also paying taxes that fund pensions outside the city.
The change means the state will pay $221 million for CPS pensions this year, up from about $12 million last year. CPS also is getting additional state aid, and legislators gave the board of education authority to raise at least $120 million more in additional property taxes, also to help with pension costs.
The new law provides relief from so-called unfunded mandates, something Rauner has wanted to scale back since taking office in 2015.
Schools will now be able to privately contract driver's education and face fewer requirements for daily physical education.
Illinois officials have bragged that the state was the first nationwide to require daily PE classes under a decades-old law, something educators argue is more critical than ever with widespread anti-obesity efforts. However, the Illinois State Board of Education says most districts offer only four days a week on average. Schools say they often don't have staff or facilities.
The new law cuts the requirement to three days a week.
Rauner has made reducing property taxes one of his top priorities, saying Illinois property owners have one of the highest tax burdens in the U.S. and it's causing people and companies to move elsewhere.
The new plan allows people living in school districts where funding is more than 110 percent of the adequacy target — essentially wealthier districts with large cash reserves — to try to have their property taxes reduced.
Ten percent of a district's registered voters would have to sign a petition to put a question on the ballot.
The plan creates a tax credit for people who donated to a private school scholarship fund. Up to $75 million in credits may be granted annually starting next fiscal year, though lawmakers haven't yet identified a way to cover that cost. The program will expire after five years unless lawmakers extend it.
Lawmakers say it will provide scholarships for between 6,000 and 10,000 students statewide. The students must come from households with an annual income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 for a family of four.
DU QUOIN — Turnout for last month’s eclipse may not have been exactly what some expected in the region, but Du Quoin business owners said having the eclipse come so closely to the Du Quoin State Fair certainly will help numbers for August.
Stacey Arnett said she has seen the last 15 or so state fairs from behind the counter at the Du Quoin Farm Fresh Dairy store. She said yearly the fair gives the store a good bump — and that this year was no different.
“Any time there is campers out there, you do see an increase,” she said.
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said this is not uncommon. He said for people in the grocery or restaurant business, the fair can be a great boost. He said in the past, Du Quoin has seen about a 15 percent sales tax revenue bump during the fair — he added that this number is hard to get exact, though, because the fair usually falls between two months.
However, he said the fair does not flood the town with visitors. He said many businesses have gotten used to the yearly event are under the “standard operating procedure” for fair season.
Abby Ancell, general manager of St. Nicholas Brewery just off of Main Street, said their numbers have been a bit skewed around the fair. She said their grand opening three years ago brought in big business and coincided with the state fair. She said looking at the next year, sales took a drop. However, this year, with both the eclipse and the state fair running almost on top of each other, she said the numbers look to have crept back up.
Ancell said the weekend leading up to the eclipse was good for the restaurant, but she said the four hours they opened the day of the eclipse were great.
“Literally every single person that came through the door Monday was from out of town,” Ancell said.
Ancell said the locals — who largely, she said, seemed to stay out of the mix during the event — came out in the days between the eclipse and the fair.
Arnett saw this, too. She said people came in to get stocked up on groceries. She said it seemed like many in the region were concerned with travel around the eclipse and wanted to be prepared.
Alongi said the eclipse had little effect on Du Quoin as a whole.
“The eclipse didn’t have any type of impact, or very little impact, on the City of Du Quoin except for traffic patterns,” he said. This was disappointing to Alongi, who said the fairgrounds would have been an ideal place to watch the eclipse, but that event organizers failed to capitalize on it.
To this end, Alongi said the fair has also taken a bit of a dip. He said in past years, more has gone into bringing people into the fairgrounds, but he said there has been less equity between the Du Quoin and Springfield events. He said he had praise for the organizers who pulled the event off despite uncertainty caused by the recently ended budget impasse.
However, Alongi thinks the state needs to promote the fair more and bring bigger acts for the mainstage events. He said people do not want to see the “disparity” between the Springfield and Du Quoin entertainment budgets.
Alongi also questioned the scheduling of some events. He said moving the harness races from the weekend to a weeknight event hurt attendance — he said crowds were at least one third of what they normally are.
“I would hope that they would rethink that for next year,” he said.
As for traffic, Alongi said the event draws mostly regional people who don’t make too many stops to businesses. However, he said people in town working the fair do shop and eat out some, accounting for some of the spike in sales taxes.
Even still, Ancell said it has been a good week for her. In fact, she said she was told more than once that stopping at the brewery was a highlight of the fair.
“I have heard from several tables that the best part of going to the fair is they get to come to St. Nick’s,” Ancell said.
She said there has been more traffic during the week because of the nightly events at the fairgrounds and certain political events have filled the restaurant more than once. The night of the Nelly concert was a banner night, she said.
A Du Quoin native, Ancell said she is thankful for the good business this week but added that the fair can be hit and miss.
“You just never know,” she said of how the event will affect the town.
MURPHYSBORO — Staff from two Murphysboro animal rescue agencies are headed to the Houston area to provide relief to animals and shelters there.
St. Francis CARE Animal Shelter and MARS of Illinois — Midwest Animal Rescue Service of Illinois, a smaller dog rescue agency — plan to start the 10-to 12-hour drive toward Houston sometime about 4 p.m. Friday, according to Christin King, event coordinator for St. Francis CARE.
The two agencies will be operating independently in Texas, but decided to make the trip together, she said.
St. Francis staff plan to give donated items to area animal shelters, treat injured animals and then bring back some of the animals already housed in Houston-area shelters to make room for the pets of people whose lives have been disrupted by Hurricane Harvey. Traveling from that agency will be Dr. Kay Creese, the agency's veterinarian, and board members Lynda Kuether and Dawn Boyd.
St. Francis is collecting donated items to take down to area shelters; King said St. Francis has enough food supplies, but is now seeking donations of:
The items will be loaded into the agency's adoption bus, a former wheelchair-accessible vehicle that has been outfitted with 13 affixed steel kennels. King said the St. Francis CARE staff plan to put a few more kennels in the aisles, hoping to bring at least 20 pets back to Southern Illinois, where they will be adoptable.
“The community has really stepped up,” King said. “We have received so many monetary donations to help with meds … so the community has definitely stepped up, and we’re very proud of our community right now.”