Here we go again.
Another day, another display of political brinkmanship by state legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner.
This time, the high-noon showdown threatens to delay the start of the academic year at some elementary and high schools in the south suburbs and throughout Illinois.
“The Democrats in the majority are playing political games with our children’s education,” Rauner told reporters in Chicago Monday, the Associated Press reported. “They seem to be intent on holding up school funding until August when schools need to open.”
Start dates vary among local districts. Classes are set to resume during the third or fourth week of August at many Southland schools.
The state’s first general aid payments to schools are due Aug. 10 but would be delayed if lawmakers and the governor are unable to reach agreement.
“While the end result may be the same, the issue now is the lack of a school funding formula rather than the lack of a budget,” the Illinois Association of School Administrators said in a Budget Crisis Toolkit made available to members and published on its website.
If no agreement is reached within the next two weeks, the question of whether to begin the school year is left to local school boards and superintendents. A key consideration is the financial situation in individual districts, particularly the amount of cash reserves a district has on hand.
The Illinois State Board of Education recommends districts keep a minimum of 90 days of reserves to meet payrolls and other essential operational expenses.
“Our plan is to open the schools on time” on Aug. 23, said D.J. Skogsberg, superintendent of Orland School District 135 in Orland Park. “We ended the (last) school year with about 150 days cash on hand. That would take us through the end of this calendar year.”
Public schools remained open during the two-year budget impasse that ended with the July 6 House override of Rauner’s veto. K-12 schools continued to receive the bulk of their state funding through appropriations that were approved separate from the stalemate over the budget.
But more than $1 billion in funding was held up for “categoricals,” such as transportation and special education. That left many districts squeezed for cash flow.
“We’re still waiting for about $1.4 million in transportation funding and $1.1 million in special ed funding” reimbursements from the state, Skogsberg said.
The Orland district serves about 5,000 students, and the $8.7 million in state funding it receives represents about 10 percent of its total revenue, Skogsberg said.
“Most of what we bring in is from property taxes,” he said.
The new budget mandates school funding use an evidence-based formula, requiring approval of separate legislation before state money is released to local districts.
Rauner has called legislators back into special session beginning Wednesday to address school funding. Many school superintendents across the state have expressed support for SB1, which would ensure all districts receive at least as much funding as last year.
The bill attempts to address some of the inequality that sees per-pupil spending range from about $8,000 in poor areas to about $30,000 in wealthy ones. The bill allocates additional spending above last year’s levels to help needier districts.
“The state can no longer afford to have the quality of a student’s education determined by ZIP code,” Advance Illinois co-chairs John Edwardson and Marin Gjaja said in a July 7 statement urging Rauner to sign the bill.
Rauner, however, has said he plans to use an amendatory veto to remove what he describes as a “bailout” of Chicago Public Schools. The bill would require the state pick up an annual $215 million employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions.
The Senate is using a parliamentary procedure to hold onto the bill, and Rauner has called for legislators to send him the measure.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Westchester, said Democrats are holding the measure to build pressure, the AP reported.
“The Democrats want to create and manufacture a school-funding crisis,” said Durkin, who appeared with Rauner in Chicago. “I want all schools funded fairly. I want all schools opening on time.”
The dispute shows how the political brinkmanship is once again affecting Illinois residents. The unwillingness to send along the legislation suggests Democrats lack enough Republican votes to override the governor’s amendatory veto.
I don’t think Rauner’s call for a special session will pressure Senate Democrats into immediately sending him the bill, either.
Rather, I expect an impasse similar to the budget stalemate to play out for at least several weeks and possibly months.
Some schools may not open on time. But many have sufficient cash on hand to operate for several months.
Cook County’s Dolton School District 148, for example, has enough money to operate until mid-December even if state dollars don’t materialize, Superintendent Kevin J. Nohelty told the Chicago Tribune in a July 13 story.
On this issue, I think it’s wrong for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton to withhold SB1 from Rauner. The Senate should send the bill to the governor, and if Rauner uses his amendatory veto powers, then so be it.
The dispute seems to center on the larger issue of pension reform. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has faced criticism for blocking reform efforts to reduce pension costs moving forward.
I understand those who think it is unfair for taxpayers throughout the state to “bail out” Chicago’s chronically underfunded teacher pensions. Chicago is the only place in Illinois where teacher pensions are funded locally and not by the state.
But I think it’s also unfair that Chicago taxpayers subsidize outrageous $300,000-a-year pensions for some retired superintendents of wealthy suburban districts. Their school boards lack discipline to limit benefits because they know taxpayers statewide will be stuck with the tab.
I think meaningful pension reform is essential to reduce costs and restore fairness. But I see that issue as separate from equality in school funding.
The state needs a school-funding bill. I think it’s unfair to delay funding to schools throughout the state while a dispute plays out over how much state taxpayers should subsidize Chicago teacher pensions.