Illinois governor orders special session on school funding

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner on Monday called for a special legislative session starting on Wednesday to secure a school funding system before classes start next month.

The Republican governor set a July 31 deadline for enacting a new funding formula without extra money for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher pensions that was included in a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in late May.

“We must act now, which is why I’m calling lawmakers back to Springfield for a special session. Our schools must open on time,” Rauner said in a statement.

At a news conference earlier on Monday, Rauner accused Democrats who control the legislature of “playing political games” with the state’s approximately 2 million school children by not sending him the education funding bill.

Rauner said he supports the bill’s establishment of an evidence-based model that ties public school funding to “best practices” aimed at enhancing student achievement. But the measure also addresses a state funding disparity for CPS pensions, which the governor has labeled a bailout for a badly managed retirement system.

The $36 billion fiscal 2018 state budget the legislature enacted earlier this month over Rauner’s veto prohibits the flow of state money to schools in the absence of an evidence-based funding model. That has raised the possibility some school districts largely dependent on state funding may not be able to open in August.

Rauner dismissed a request by Democratic Senate President John Cullerton to meet with legislative leaders so the governor can make a “rational decision” on the bill.

“I’d like to have a conversation with Governor Rauner in hopes of getting some clarity as to exactly what is going on,” Cullerton said in a statement on Monday. “We slowed down the process in the Senate in order to let everyone blow off some steam, politically speaking.”

Rauner, who insisted on getting the bill on his desk before holding any discussions, declined to describe in detail his amendatory veto plans for CPS funding in the bill. Data posted on his website indicated the bill’s $293 million funding boost for CPS for state aid and pensions would be sliced nearly in half, freeing up $145 million for other school districts.

Escalating pension payments have led to drained reserves, debt dependency and junk bond ratings for CPS, the nation’s third-largest public school system.

The governor called the CPS pension funding “a poison pill” in the legislation, adding that it should be taken up separately.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; Matthew Lewis)

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