Illinois school funding at risk as negotiations break down

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks during a news conference July 26 on the first day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol in Springfield.

AP

DECATUR — Touting an increase in money for downstate schools, Gov. Bruce Rauner called on local Democratic lawmakers to support his changes to the school funding overhaul needed to fund districts for the coming school year.

During an interview with the Herald & Review editorial board, the Republican governor said he's optimistic about ongoing bipartisan negotiations on the bill, which was approved by the Democratic-majority General Assembly in May and sent to him Monday.

He said there was no reason for downstate lawmakers to oppose the amendatory veto he issued Tuesday, which removed help for Chicago Public Schools' pensions along with money the district formerly received in the form of a block grant, among other rewrites. Rauner said his plan would steer more money toward downstate districts, and specifically called for support of the legislation's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill.

“God bless Sen. Manar, he's been fighting for education reform,” Rauner said. “But why would Sen. Manar vote for a bill that diverts dollars away from schools in his district and move them to the Chicago pension system?”

He later made similar comments about Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, who also supported the original Senate bill.

A new school formula is required as part of a state budget deal that lawmakers approved in July; without it, districts won't get paid. The first payment to schools is due Aug. 10.

Democrats approved the legislation in May but did not send it to the governor because of concerns that he would veto it, a delay that Rauner called "political gamesmanship on the backs of our children."

He also reiterated previous allegations that superintendents across the state voiced support for the original legislation because they are afraid of retribution from House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau questioned that statement last week, saying school officials were concerned about not receiving any state funds — not retribution from any state lawmakers.

Another of Rauner’s changes affects the so-called “hold harmless” provision, which provides that no district would receive less money than it did this year. Rauner's plan would switch how funding is calculated starting in 2021, moving from a per-district to per-pupil basis, meaning that schools that lose students would receive less funding.

Decatur administrators have said the district will run out of money by mid-November if no state funds arrive, and other Macon County education leaders have expressed increasing anxiety about the uncertainty.

The bill now returns to the Legislature, where three-fifths of lawmakers in both chambers must either approve or override Rauner's changes. Both options will be difficult. If neither chamber can muster the votes, the legislation dies. If there's a new plan, it would also face a three-fifths threshold in each chamber.

This story will be updated.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.

RYAN VOYLES writes for the Decatur Herald & Review, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern Illinoisan.

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