SPARTA — Educators again waited with baited breath for Springfield to send them money Tuesday, and again they were disappointed.
“I was devastated by the news yesterday as we are now faced with making extremely difficult decisions on whether to start school or not,” Gabrielle Schwemmer, superintendent of Sparta School District 140, said Wednesday of the news that Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed Senate Bill 1 Tuesday.
The bill provides a formula for school funding that takes into consideration which schools may be more in need of state funding than others, which would be of benefit to many schools in Southern Illinois. Rauner has said that he is in favor of this — what he is not in favor of, though, is a portion of SB1 that included funding for the underfunded Chicago Public School pension fund — CPS is the only district in the state that funds its own pension program. He has called for these two items to be separated into two bills, which Republicans in the Legislature have been working on.
With his amendatory veto Tuesday, Rauner stripped this funding and a few other core portions of the bill, a move that angered Democrats who continued to call Rauner an obstructionist.
Matt Donkin, superintendent of West Frankfort School District 168, said he anticipated the amendatory veto and was disappointed by it, but what shocked him was the scope.
“The extent of the veto went beyond, to me, talking points that he had had in dealing with Chicago and goes to the heart of some of the things in the evidence-based formula that were going to help our schools in our area not just for one year but for the years ahead,” Donkin said.
One of the primary concerns Donkin and other educators have with the the contents of Rauner’s veto is the removal of a growing adequacy target, or baseline funding amount, for school districts. Donkin said when the language of the formula was originally written, the baseline schools could potentially receive from the state would increase regularly to account for inflation. Donkin said this was also to help some districts reduce property taxes for residents while still being able to make up this cost through state funding.
“This amendatory veto sets it up where, even if a district were to lower their property taxes going in, we are not going to get any more (state funding) to make it up,” Donkin said.
He gave the example of a district drawing 50 percent of their funding from property taxes and 50 percent from state funding. In time, he said a district may eventually want to reduce their taxes-based funding to 40 percent — reducing the tax levy for district residents. The way the formula was originally written, the state would be able to increase its support to make up the difference — 60 to 40. However, Donkin said with Rauner’s veto this adequacy target stays static. Donkin said this fixes funding for low-income schools for just one year instead of providing a living formula that changes with the times. He said this is not unlike how the current formula works where all districts can potentially receive a flat $6,119 per student per year.
While still angry at the decision to veto SB1, Schwemmer said if Rauner needs these two items separated, maybe that’s what needs to happen.
“I think this would be appropriate in order to approve school funding immediately and continue to negotiate on CPS pensions separate from this bill,” she said.
Donkin said he thinks this should have come up in the time it took to create the bill.
“It has taken three to four years to get us to this point and the General Assembly managed to put this bill together,” Donkin said. “That should have been brought up a long time before now.”
Donkin and Schwemmer said their districts will be open on time, but the real question is for how long. Neither had a good gauge on how long they could last if no funding is delivered by the state for months or even weeks.
“If partial tax payments are released by Aug. 21, we should have funding to get us through part of September. My fear is the chance we are taking if no state funds flow by the end of September we will have to close school,” Schwemmer said. She added that she is also preparing a contingency plan.
“I am having language drafted to attempt to retain a line of credit if funding is not received before Aug. 16,” she said.
Donkin said it is good that schools are being creative despite yet another standoff in Springfield, but he said this is not the conversation that should be going on in communities right now. He said they should be talking about school supplies, earlier bedtimes and school bus safety.
“Instead we are dealing with this issue this close to the start of school,” Donkin said.
In West Frankfort, Donkin said they will be able to make it through a few pay periods before having to shut down, but he is not sure this means they aren’t required to still pay teachers.
“We already, by contract … we are committed to the teaching staff for the school year,” Donkin said, adding that this could result in a union suit either with the district or the state, which Donkin said would be yet more money diverted from teaching.
Donkin said if he had time to sit with Rauner one-on-one, he would express his gratitude for his concern for educating children and even for sharing his thoughts on how to improve the system, but he said at this stage in the game, years into developing this formula, schools need someone to be part of the solution, not the problem.
“That’s what we hope everybody who is going into public service goes into this for,” Donkin said.