Schools still waiting to see if they'll get money from state

Amid the relief that lawmakers passed an Illinois budget for the first time in two years, one key provision has been overlooked: Schools won't get state dollars unless Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signs a new “evidence-based” funding formula into law.

But the only evidence-based model that's been passed by the legislature is a plan the governor has pledged to veto, calling it a “bailout” for Chicago Public Schools.

The predicament leaves suburban school districts in the lurch, with some with low cash reserves facing the possibility of not being able to open for the new school year.

“School districts are already preparing crisis plans for what happens if they don't have funding for the start of the school year,” said Bob Dolgan, communications director for education policy nonprofit Advance Illinois. “For some districts that may mean not opening their doors; for others that could mean only being open for a short period.”

A Daily Herald analysis of 93 suburban school district reserves found 34 districts 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 million in annual expenses. West Aurora Unit District 129 had $10 million in reserves, but $139 million in annual expenses. Others had more backup funds.

“The fiscal stewardship of the District 95 board will allow us to open this fall if state funding is not in place,” said Kaine Osburn, superintendent of Lake Zurich Unit District 95, which had $60.4 million in reserve and $81.5 million in annual expenses. “However, that cannot go on indefinitely, and a prolonged funding stalemate would put our mission at risk.”

Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake, a co-sponsor of the school funding legislation, said she's been in communication with superintendents in her district, with whom she plans an upcoming joint news conference to discuss the situation.

“No school funding legislation is perfect,” Osburn said, encouraging legislators “to collaborate to work out differences. We should not let the minimal differences between (the current legislation) and its alternatives shut down schools.”

The state budget, passed by an override vote after Rauner vetoed it, gives the 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 their target. An exception is transportation funds, which would be sent to schools regardless of the passage of a new funding formula.

Illinois' current school funding formula sends money to schools through general state aid, which is allotted through a formula factoring in local property wealth, and through grants for programs such as special education, bilingual education and transportation, which are based on the number of students using those services.

An education funding plan was passed by both houses of the Democratic-led legislature in May. Education secretary Beth Purvis has said the governor's administration likes “90 percent” of the legislation, which would not reduce any district's state funding from its current levels.

What the governor's office doesn't like about the bill is the additional $215 million targeted to go to Chicago Public Schools for pensions, which is aimed at easing some of the disparity of the state's pickup of downstate and suburban teacher pension costs.

Rauner aides did not immediately return requests for comment about what Rauner planned to do about school funding if he vetoed the bill on his desk as planned.

“We've debated components of this bill long enough,” Grayslake Community High School District 127 Superintendent Catherine Finger said. “It is time to ... provide school districts with an equitable funding system that ensures consistency, predictability — and ultimately, adequacy.”

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  Students leave summer school at Larkin High School in Elgin. While the first state budget has passed since 2015, schools won't get money if an education funding bill isn't signed into law. Rick West/
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