Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said Monday that accusations that he cares less about predominantly minority students in Chicago Public Schools are "hurtful" and that he "cares deeply" about every child in Chicago.
But, shortly before calling a legislative special session to try to force action on a school funding bill, Rauner told the Daily Herald editorial board that removing a provision that would direct $215 million to Chicago for pension payments for teachers is vital to fairness for students in the rest of Illinois.
Rauner spoke to the paper as part of a statewide tour designed to amp up pressure on the Democratic-led legislature to get the school funding formula, approved more than a month ago, to his desk. Democrats have delayed sending it to the governor in an attempt to force Rauner to sign it without changes if schools are to open on time.
Getting money to schools usually isn't such a complicated matter. But a key provision of the state budget passed by the legislature earlier this month -- ending a more than two-year stalemate -- prevents schools from getting state dollars unless Rauner signs a new "evidence-based" funding formula into law.
The only evidence-based model that's been passed by the legislature is the plan the governor has pledged to veto, calling it a "bailout" for Chicago Public Schools.
Democrats who support the measure balk at that description, noting the state has long offset the costs of pensions for suburban and downstate teachers, putting Chicago at a disadvantage.
The state budget, passed by an override vote after Rauner vetoed it, gives the Illinois State Board of Education $8.2 billion to distribute to schools -- about $350 million more than last year.
Most of that funding, $6.76 billion, is tied to passage of a so-called evidence-based funding formula, which sets a per-student spending level for each school district and awards extra funds to those that can't meet the target. An exception is transportation funds, which would be sent to schools regardless of the passage of a new funding formula.
Rauner says that taking out the $215 million pension payment for Chicago would boost funding for other needy school districts around the suburbs and state. For instance, his office estimates that Round Lake Area Unit School District 116 would gain $1.8 million next year with his planned amendatory veto and that Waukegan District 60 would gain $4.3 million under the measure.
"Chicago needs to have things done differently, but that should not be conflated, confused with money (spent) in the classroom," he said.
Rauner later called the General Assembly back to Springfield starting Wednesday. He says the debate over school funding must be over by July 31 to allow schools to open on time this fall.
Senate President John Cullerton said Monday that he'd like to have a leaders meeting with Rauner to "gain some clarity about what's going on." House Speaker Michael Madigan's spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker would also be open to attending such a meeting.
But Rauner called Democratic leaders' suggestion a "diversion tactic" and a "sham."
If Rauner ultimately amends the school bill, under state law lawmakers in both chambers must either approve his changes or vote to override them with a three-fifths majority -- a difficult task on such a regionally divisive subject.
If they fail to act, the entire bill will die, meaning schools won't get any of the $6.76 billion tied to the passage of a new formula.
A Daily Herald analysis of 93 suburban school districts found that 34 spent down reserves by a collective $82 million last year.
For example, Oak Grove Elementary District 68 based in Libertyville had just $93,757 in reserves but $13.7 million in annual expenses. West Aurora Unit District 129 had $10.6 million in reserves but $138.8 million in annual expenses. Others had more backup funds.
Suburban school superintendents with varying cash reserves have spent recent days urging Rauner to sign the education bill as is.
"Districts have been hit by a double whammy particularly in the past year, with (late) payments on top of having a formula ranked worst in the nation for equity," said Bob Dolgan, spokesman for education policy nonprofit Advance Illinois. "That's why they're in crisis mode now."