Public schools' revenue growth outpaces inflation
You're a stakeholder in a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
Every year, you cut a check.
Every year, you give more.
Some years, you give much more -- even if you live in the same house, work the same job, pull down the same pay.
Like it or not, you're a contributor to big business -- the big business of Illinois public schools.
This multi-part Daily Herald series will help you understand the financial side of your investment.
Other people do -- people with a stake in the dollars and cents of public schools.
Lobbyists and lawyers.
Consultants of all sorts.
In short, people with a lot to gain from maximizing revenue for public schools.
Most of these stakeholders have a plan to tweak, update or completely overhaul the way Illinois funds its schools.
The Illinois Education Association has called for a constitutional amendment to increase the state contribution to public schools.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers has called for "comprehensive changes in the state's fiscal system."
The Illinois Association of School Administrators wants to increase state funding and amend or repeal laws that limit the amount schools can collect from taxpayers.
Three recent school finance reform plans -- one by more than 200 Illinois mayors, one by civil leaders and education professionals, and one by the Metropolitan Planning Commission -- have called for billions more dollars for Illinois schools.
This year, lawmakers battled over but did not pass two school funding reform bills.
The plan supported by Gov. Rod Blagojevich would have imposed a new tax on business and generated an estimated $7.7 billion extra for health care and schools.
Recent rumbles over school funding are part of a long-roiling debate that never seems to reach a conclusion.
Thus, reliably, a funding debate flares every few years.
And just as reliably, passions flare, because billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of young minds are at stake.
Your child's mind.
For decades, the debate over school finance has been the purview of professionals.
This series aims to provide you with the information and ammunition necessary to participate in and help shape that debate in a sensible and comprehensible manner.
The weekly series, based on 10 years' worth of state data, will strip away the terms that compartmentalize and complicate school finance.
Using a chapter-by-chapter, textbook-style approach, the series will show how revenue was raised in your district, how revenue was distributed to your district, and how revenue was allocated in your district.
The Illinois Education Association says those three aspects of the school finance system -- the revenue stream, the distribution system and the allocation system -- are deeply flawed.
The starting point
We'll begin with numbers almost too big to understand.
In the past 10 school years, the 1996-97 year to the 2005-06 year, Illinois schools collected more than $171 billion.
That's $171 billion for teachers, administrators, supplies, transportation, new construction and day-to-day maintenance.
The $171 billion came from local sources, including property taxes and school fees; from the state; and from the federal government.
That $171 billion does not include bond loans taken out to build new schools.
In the Daily Herald coverage area -- from Gurnee down to Bolingbrook, from Des Plaines west to Huntley -- 10 districts each took in more than $1 billion over the past decade.
Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second largest district, collected the most of area districts: $2.91 billion.
Several factors determine how much money schools collect. Chief among them is student enrollment.
Over the 10-year span, U-46 averaged 32,906 students.
The second most populous suburban district during that period was Naperville Unit District 203, with an average of 17,324 students.
Yet, while Naperville 203 was second in average number of students, it was fifth in amount of money taken in.
In fact, District 203 received millions less than school districts with smaller populations.
Take Northwest Suburban High School District 214, which averaged 11,087 students annually -- 6,000 fewer students than Naperville 203.
District 214, based in Arlington Heights, collected $1.78 billion over the 10 years.
Naperville 203 took in $1.55 billion.
That's a difference of $230 million -- $23 million a year -- and District 203 had on average 6,000 more students each and every year.
In addition to average attendance figures, property values determine how much money a district receives.
Later, we'll delve into why districts receive the amount they do from federal, state and local sources.
For now, we'll focus more on the "how much" rather than the "why."
It's all about growth
"How much" has increased exponentially, and much faster than the rate of inflation, in most area districts during the past 10 years.
Driving revenue increases were some obvious factors.
The revenue in Huntley Unit District 158, for example, increased by 660 percent.
The McHenry County-based district collected $8.9 million in the 1996-97 school year -- and 10 years later collected $67.6 million.
Skyrocketing growth in attendance, 404 percent over the 10-year period, drove most of the increase.
Generally, population increases mean bumps in the number of homes, property values and tax revenue.
But many suburban districts tallied revenue spikes that had little or nothing to do with the number of students.
Of the 94 districts the Daily Herald covers, 83 increased per-pupil revenues by more than the rate of inflation over the past decade.
The state tax cap limits how much more school districts can collect in local taxes from one year to the next. The limit is the lesser of 5 percent or the rate of inflation, excluding revenue from new construction.
But tax caps don't apply to school fees -- to register, for driver's ed, for band -- and these fees have risen quickly.
Between fees, new homes and tax increases, the revenue in many districts has consistently, overwhelmingly outpaced the rate of inflation over the past decade.
Grass Lake Elementary District 36, for example, increased its per-pupil revenue by 189 percent, to $15,575, over 10 years.
In that time, the district's total revenue increased by more than 100 percent, even as its student population declined by nearly 30 percent.
In comparison, the rate of inflation over the 10 years was 24 percent. Districts statewide collected, on average, 52 percent more per student in 2005 than in 1996.
That is, average per-pupil revenue increased by more than twice the rate of inflation in Illinois school districts over the past decade.
• Chapter 2: State and federal contributions to Illinois public schools.