SPRINGFIELD — Nearly two months after a deal ended the historic state budget impasse, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill Thursday ending a freeze on state aid to public schools.
After a showdown — highlighted by what some saw as an inflammatory amendatory veto of Senate Bill 1, which had been ready for Rauner’s pen since May — state schools are now funded under the guidance of a new funding formula, putting schools in greater need of state aid at the head of the line. Schools went without a formula after the budget deal passed in July because the new budget changed the language of how schools were to be funded but did so without a funding formula already in place.
Many local schools were concerned that with a lack of state funding — both of August's general state aid payments were missed because of the lack of a funding formula — they would have to close early, some even before Halloween.
Matt Donkin, superintendent of Frankfort Community Unit School District 168, said his district was one of these schools.
“I know when we got to the end of September we were going to be in serious trouble,” Donkin said.
The framework for receiving payments is laid out, but the next question is how will it work. In an email to superintendents on Thursday, Illinois State Board of Education Chief Financial Officer Robert Wolfe said ISBE will work swiftly to get the information Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s office needs to begin retroactively paying districts for the month of August.
“ISBE will work as quickly as possible to issue vouchers to the Comptroller for her office to make payments,” Wolfe said in the email.
Wolfe also added that the payment information submitted for these missed payments will be based on last year’s numbers.
“Therefore, initial payments to school districts will be the preliminary base-funding minimum amounts based on final FY 2017 distributions,” the email said.
Abdon Pallasch, director of communication for Mendoza’s office, said the state owes $540 million statewide for the month of August. He said once the comptroller begins receiving vouchers, they will start paying as soon as possible.
Wolfe said in his email to superintendents that ISBE estimated that schools should receive payment for August about a week from Aug. 31. He said after this, regular state aid payments will resume their regular payment schedule of being released on the 10th and 20th of every months except July.
Donkin said he is relieved to know a funding measure is in place and that the school can go back to focusing on kids. However, he said, this does not take his district out of the woods yet.
“We have to go back to work to address some of the issues we were already having which include borrowing we have had to do the last couple of years and paying your bills in a timely manner,” Donkin said.
He said the situation is like the aftermath of a major storm. He said once the storm passes, damage has to be assessed and priority given to some tasks.
Gabe Schwemmer, superintendent of Sparta School District 140, said they were in the same boat. She said they are putting their focus on getting on better financial footing.
“Because we are attempting to become financially solvent, we do not plan to hire additional staff. Considering we have no reserves, my goal would be to establish some in the event of another rainy day,” Schwemmer said.
While districts may be trying to get things back to normal, Du Quoin School District 300 Superintendent Gary Kelly said he is not sure the fight is over yet.
“Are we going to continue fighting a battle to make sure there is money placed into the formula,” Kelly asked of the state’s next budget negotiations.
He said while it is now in the law that the new school aid formula is to be funded in a particular way, he no longer trusts even the most certain of things given the three-year budget impasse. He said it will be important for lawmakers and educators to be hawkish to ensure the formula is funded properly, ensuring that it, in turn, functions properly.
Cheryl Graff, regional superintendent of schools for Alexander, Jackson, Pulaski, Perry and Union counties, agreed, saying educators will still have to fight for their students.
“I think with the way the budgets have been the last few years we can't be certain there will be a budget next year,” she said, adding that it made her angry that she had to worry year to year whether there would be funding for schools, an item every legislator seems to be in favor of she said.
Donkin said while he looks forward to again receiving regular funding, he can’t help but wonder about the students who came through his schools during the impasse. He wondered if the uncertainty that permeated public education for years negatively impacted their education. He said schools only get one shot at reaching students.
“You just kind of wonder what we missed out on,” Donkin said.