CHICAGO — Suburban lawmakers say there’s a long way to go before they can say how funding for school districts and other local government will shake out.
In addition to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s sweeping changes in state spending announced last week, a pair of bills that would change how school funds are distributed are being negotiated.
While the governor called for a $300 million boost to primary education, he also proposed cuts to higher education and in aid to local government.
“We had a meeting (on Wednesday), coincidentally, with the Illinois Association of School Boards and other education-related associations that were in Springfield for the budget address,” said Sen. Chris Nybo, R-Elmhurst.
“The good news for the Western Suburbs and for all K-12 is that it’s one of the areas that has been spared from the cuts that the governor is proposing.”
Nybo said expectations are not high that much of that $300 million “will end up coming back to the communities that I represent, or other communities in DuPage County.”
A new school funding formula, however, could have a lot to do with how local schools are funded. Lawmakers are trying to draft bills that base funding on at least two factors that don’t always go hand-in-hand: economic need and measurable performance.
“I have the privilege of representing some of the finest districts in Illinois. Other districts should emulate, not defund, districts doing a better job,” said Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard. “You help those who are not achieving their goals through reform before you talk about increasing funding to those districts.”
The first Senate bill filed this session re-opened the conversation about school funding. Rep. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, sponsored The School Funding Reform Act of 2015. Manar’s bill seeks to send more dollars to districts with the greatest economic need.
Manar said he’s made changes to the bill based on bipartisan discussions with fellow legislators and other parties, including school officials.
He says SB1 would distribute 92 cents of every dollar on the basis of need while including a method of comparing regional costs, a more accurate measurement of poverty and additional money for districts with high special education needs.
Manar and co-sponsors said the plan, to work effectively, would need about $500 million more pumped into public education than in previous years.
About 10 days ago, Manar joined with Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, to announce new legislation developed with the cooperation of the Vision 20/20 coalition of educators.
That legislation ties school funding to actual educational outcomes and true district costs, Barickman said.
Manar’s joining the effort was hailed as a sign that both need and performance will be addressed in whatever new funding formula emerges.
Nybo said efforts to rewrite of the school funding formula is something he’s keeping an eye on, but hardly the only thing in terms of education.
“There’s other parts of the (state) budget that affect K-12,” Nybo said.
Another aspect of Rauner’s budget proposal, a reduction in state aid to local governments, is causing some apprehension.
Rauner proposes nearly halving the local government distributive fund, which is about $1.2 billion.
The Rauner team says the money makes up about only 3 percent of all local funding.
Critics of the move, however, say that’s a total number that doesn’t take into account the impact on some communities that rely more heavily on state money than do others.
Some Democrats argue the governor’s plan would, in the end, force communities to seek more property taxes. Rauner, however, has also called for property tax freezes and reforms in local spending.
“I think it’s a real broadside to middle class families across Illinois if we’re going to try to balance our budget by increasing local property taxes and making college less affordable and more out of reach for middle class families,” State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said.
But many legislators made a point after Rauner’s speech to mention the legislative session is hardly over, and they noted the governor’s office and the legislature are coequals. They said called Rauner’s budget a blueprint or starting point and predicted changes.
The GOP’s state Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove, a former mayor, said he liked the governor’s approach.
“My thoughts are we got an honest budget, finally one where we’re not spending more than we take in, which is a rarity around here,” Sandack said.
But Sandack also acknowledged a lot of legislators will be facing interesting talks with constituents and those discussions will follow them back to Springfield.
“Consensus is going to be tricky because some people are going to be asked to vote against their districts and seemingly take very difficult votes,” he said.
State Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, called Rauner’s plan “refreshing” but acknowledged, “Obviously that plan will not be implemented exactly as it was proposed.”
Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, deputy Republican leader, praised Rauner’s approach for addressing the state’s chronic overspending, but said there will be more to talk about.
“I didn’t hear a take-it-or leave it tone,” Murphy said. “I expect some spirited negotiations, but I think there’s an opportunity to have a good, productive spring, more so than we’ve seen down here in a long, long time.”
Democrat Michael Madigan of Chicago, the influential Speaker of the House, has been respectful of Rauner but also has not closed the door on additional state revenue.
“You have to understand that if you reduce the amount of money going to the local governments you’re putting pressure on the local government budgets — those are budgets that normally support police departments, fire departments, garbage pickup, water service, sewer service,” Madigan said.
The Legislature and the governor can work together, the speaker said.
“Out of all of that will come a work product at the end of May and, hopefully, it will be a good, sound plan that will put … state government on a path to restoring fiscal stability (and) at the same time not unduly hurting people that depend upon the government for services.”
Lesley Nickus is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.