MARION — As Illinois lawmakers met Monday in hopes of negotiating a funding mechanism to distribute money to schools before classes begin in mid-August, local superintendents and stakeholders met in Marion to send a collective message to the General Assembly.
In that meeting, Dr. Brent Clark, Executive Director for the Illinois Association of School Administrators, said passage of an evidence-based funding formula like SB1 — which is waiting to be sent to Governor Bruce Rauner’s desk — is historic.
“This is a momentous occasion. The state is at a precipice of something phenomenally good, or something chaotically bad,” Clark said.
Clark said that some Southern Illinois schools are either 10 days away from receiving the first general fund payment, or on the verge of closing their doors because they do not have the dollars in their reserve funds to continue for more than a few weeks.
Jennifer Garrison, Superintendent for Sandoval Community Unit District 501 said “We have no reserves left. If we use every single dollar in our account, we can stay open now through September. If something were to happen, for example if we had to fix a boiler, it would be a catastrophe for us.”
Garrison said other districts may be able to stay open longer once they get their tax revenue, but because her district has a high poverty rate and low property wealth, they are in jeopardy.
“We have implemented a hiring freeze, and purchasing freeze for returning teachers,” Garrison said.
Dr. Gary Kelly, Superintendent for Du Quoin Community School District #300, joked that school funding formula changes had been so long in discussion that he had hair when the conversation first began.
“It’s been a long journey. It was agreed upon by educators, policy makers, legislative leaders, stakeholders and the governor’s office that something had to be done. And knowing that, we worked out a formula that would give all students in Illinois a plan that would include no red numbers.”
Kelly said all those involved in crafting SB1 knew what needed to be done and did what they were asked to do.
“We crafted a plan that will put funds in the school districts most in need. That plan was not based on an arbitrary number, but was based on adequacy targets for every single school district in the state.”
Kelly said the development of SB1 was done in a very public way. It was shared with both houses and the governor’s office, public entities, private entities, school boards and local forums.
“There were no surprises. This bill provides accountability for exactly how public funds are to be spent.”
Clark said what is holding up the passage of SB1 is not the evidence-based funding model, which both sides of the aisle generally agree works, but other things surrounding education, like scholarships and mandate relief, and how pension payments should be made and by whom.
Matt Donkin, Superintendent for the Franklin County Community Unit School District 168 said he was reminded of a phrase ‘All for one, and one for all’ taught to him by his sixth-grade teacher.
“That’s what we need to remember right now. We are in this for the education of all the children in the state of Illinois. The bottom line is that we are looking for something that uses an evidence-based formula, leaves no one behind and where nobody goes backwards,” Donkin said.
Clarke said that it may be difficult for the average person to believe, but the last time a bill was able to pass both the Illinois House and Senate was in 1997.
“That’s 20 years, and SB1 is the only bill in the last two decades to do it. Is SB1 perfect? No. Any bill that passes through Springfield is a product of passing through the political process. Are there changes that can be made in negotiation to improve it? Certainly. But SB1 moves all school districts forward.”
Keith Oats, Superintendent of Marion Community Unit School District #2 said “We are here in support of the kids and families across the state of Illinois. Our schools are being prepared as we speak and registration is taking place-all over southern Illinois. We have done our jobs. We are ready.”
Garrison said the urgency of passing a funding formula could not be overstated.
“We cannot wait another day. Tomorrow is August 1, and according to the comptroller, the drop-dead date is August 4. We need our legislators to pass this bill now. We need to put our kids first, not politics,” she said.
SB1, the proposed formula, routes any new money to the neediest districts first and ensures that no district receives less money than the previous school year.
Republican objection to the funding formula centers on the fact that SB1 allegedly contains pension help for Chicago school districts in the form of a block grant, which some consider a bailout.
Democrats say that is incorrect, that the block grant is gone and that the pending proposal only covers a portion of the district’s pension cost.
Chicago is the only district in Illinois that pays the employer portion of teacher pension costs.
Negotiations between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican governor broke down Monday, endangering the funding for approximately 850 school districts in the state.