SPRINGFIELD — As Illinois schools look to absorb a $150 million budget cut, districts are asking for two things: flexibility and a break from state mandates.
“I personally wish they would just stop throwing things at school districts,” El Paso-Gridley Superintendent Mike Lindy said.
Lindy’s schools, and the nearly 900 other school districts in Illinois, started the 2014 school year with 24 new mandates and may start the 2015 school year with 19 more.
Illinois’ school mandates cover everything from teaching special needs students, which is expensive, to a relatively cheap required lesson in October on Lief Erickson.
“One of the mandates that they’re underfunding is transportation,” Lindy said. “(Of course) we’re going to continue to transport our kids … We’re going to find a way.”
Lindy’s budget for his rural, downstate district is just over $11 million, and transportation costs are almost $1 million.
The Illinois State Board of Education late last month announced it would not pay the final two mandated categorical payments to schools. The categorical payments supplement general state aid, and cover the cost of the dozens of requirements ISBE and the state Legislature place on local schools.
Not getting the last two payments for school buses is going to hurt, Lindy said.
ISBE blames the categorical payment cut on Illinois’ dire fiscal situation.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner was forced to close a $1.6 billion budget gap by sweeping special funds, and imposing a 2.25 percent across-the-board cut.
That 2.25 percent cut essentially wiped out the final categorical payment to schools.
But it’s not just a lack of payment for required classes or services.
State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said both the Legislature and state board hamper local schools with dozens of other mandates on how they can manage their money.
“We require schools to hold all of their (dollars) in different funds. You know a fund here, a fund there, a fund for this, a fund for that,” Rose said. “What (schools) are really clamoring for…is flexibility.”
Requiring schools to silo money into dedicated funds is supposed to prevent underfunding, but Rose said it makes Illinois’ school funding problem worse.
Rose said local schools could survive a few cuts in categorical funding, if the state gave districts the ability to manage their money as they see fit.
“You’ve told them ‘You can spend this amount of money on this thing’,” Rose said of the required classes and the required fiscal mandates. “(General education funding) is where they have the freedom and flexibility to adjust to what’s happening.”
Rose has proposed a package of mandate reforms, but the idea has been bottled up as Illinois lawmakers talk about a different plan that would overhaul how Illinois pays for the entire public school system in the state.
Rose said, often, schools don’t need more money, just more discretion in how to spend what they already have.
“You have school districts that end up having more money left over in certain (mandated budget) lines, but they can’t then turn around and hire a teacher to lower class size. That’s crazy,” Rose said.
Benjamin Yount is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.