Lack of state budget devastates cash-strapped school districts: Superintendent Smith

By Harvard Zhang

Springfield, Ill. — Illinois School Superintendent Tony Smith warned legislators that, without a K-12 budget by July 1, 187 school districts will have less than 100 days of cash on hand.

Testifying Tuesday before the House appropriations committee, Smith underlined the looming cash crunch facing Illinois school districts, adding that they’re also having to evaluate trade-offs in possible different school funding formulas, all with the gloomy prospect for an end to the state’s budget deadlock prolonged perhaps until after the November election.

School districts suffer as Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic lawmakers led by House Speaker Michael Madigan clashed in a fresh round over the vista for school funding.

“That 100 days of cash on hand is not just for paying staff but interest on loans, because districts have been borrowing, making it more problematic,” Smith testified.

The governor infuriated Chicago Public Schools earlier Tuesday by slashing the district’s state funding for fiscal year 2017 commencing in July by $74 million, or 7.7 percent below 2016 state aid. The Illinois State Board of Education detailed how much each of the more than 800 school districts will receive in fiscal 2017 under Rauner’s plan to provide a minimum of $6,119 per student, the first time in seven years that school funding won’t be reduced.

Under the General State Aid formula that considers school enrollment, the number of students living in poverty, and local property tax values, the governor’s plan would allot more funding to suburban and downstate schools, including Rockford District taking in an extra $4.8 million and a total $114.2 million.

The governor’s move came one day after veteran House Speaker Madigan proposed a state constitutional amendment to double down on the state’s role in public education. Madigan’s proposal, suggesting Illinois has the “preponderant,” not “primary,” financial responsibility for financing public education, created the possibility of lawsuits against the state if insufficient aid is delivered.

On rewriting the school funding formula, Smith said the education board, responsible for distributing state dollars to school districts, should play a role in evaluating and comparing trade-offs in various proposals.

“As long as the core of the funding formula is on local property taxes, the degree and the range we have for what we’re really going to do is actually pretty narrow,” Smith said.

Striving to solve school districts’ over-reliance on local property taxes to fund education, State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) proposed last week to funnel state money to districts based on the needs of their students. But Manar’s plan drew criticism from both sides of the aisle, notably on the state’s picking up more than $200 million in pension costs for Chicago Public Schools.

Many state lawmakers and educators, despite this record-long budget crisis now in its tenth month, have advocated for education equality knowing that children have unequal opportunities.

“If you’re on the one-yard line and you want to get to the end zone, and if someone else is on the 50, very much likely that they’re going to get there first,” Smith said. “The outcome is we want kids to be prepared to be contributing citizens. We in a public education system should be doing everything we can to differentiate resources around that same high standard.”

Photo at top: Illinois State Education Superintendent Tony Smith, left, conferred with State Rep. William Davis, Chair of Illinois House Appropriations — Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, after a Tuesday committee hearing. (Harvard Zhang/MEDILL)