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Democrats: Illinois schools could face major cuts

Lariyah Beasley, a 4-year-old preschool student from Chicago, holds a sign during a rally Aug. 28, 2013 outside the Chicago Board of Education headquarters in Chicago. Most of Illinois' 860 school districts would see severe cuts in funding if the state's temporary tax increase is rolled back as scheduled, according to a document circulated this week as part of Illinois Democrats' campaign to preserve the tax hike and push to update the state's school funding formula.
Lariyah Beasley, a 4-year-old preschool student from Chicago, holds a sign during a rally Aug. 28, 2013 outside the Chicago Board of Education headquarters in Chicago. Most of Illinois' 860 school districts would see severe cuts in funding if the state's temporary tax increase is rolled back as scheduled, according to a document circulated this week as part of Illinois Democrats' campaign to preserve the tax hike and push to update the state's school funding formula.

SPRINGFIELD – Most of Illinois’ 860 school districts would see cuts in funding if the state’s temporary tax increase is rolled back as scheduled, according to a document being circulated as part of Illinois Democrats’ campaign to preserve the tax hike and push to update the state’s school funding formula.

The document, released by the caucus this week, cites what would be a total of $450 million in general state aid cuts to schools. But a few schools, mainly in Chicago’ suburbs, would actually receive more money despite the state’s drop in revenues, because the complicated, 20-year-old funding formula would consider them poorer.

Republicans quickly disputed the figures. They said the Democrats are exaggerating the extent of the cuts needed and could manage the state’s finances better by finding savings elsewhere.

Senate Democrats estimate Illinois will have a $3 billion budget gap next year. About $1.6 billion of that is because the temporary income tax increase lawmakers approved in 2011 is scheduled to be rolled back in January from its current 5 percent to 3.75 percent.

Working with the Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, which also is supportive of keeping the tax increase in place, Senate Democrats asked agency leaders in recent weeks to spell out for lawmakers what 20 percent decreases in discretionary spending would mean for their budgets.

State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch told Senate appropriators in late March that budget cuts would mean $967 million less for education overall.

The Senate Democrats’ document, compiled by the state board and released by the caucus Thursday, reveals for the first time the impact to specific districts around the state in terms of general state aid, the state money used to offset the basic cost of educating students.

State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat and appropriations committee chairman, said detailing the impact of the cuts is essential.

“I think it’s going to be very devastating to students, to families and people who educate,” he said.

But Republicans say before cutting school aid, Democrats should look for way to reduce wasteful spending in Medicaid or other state agencies and programs.

“These are political spin numbers to sell a tax increase,” GOP Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said. “The truth of the matter is you can have the tax increase go down and you can spend as much on education as they did this year. These guys have found religion on education.”

Yet, despite those criticisms, GOP lawmakers have yet to release their own budget proposal showing how education cuts could be spared without extending the tax increase.

Since the late 1990s, Illinois’ complicated school funding formula has awarded some state funds to districts based on poverty levels and other money on the number of students participating in specific programs.

According to the Democrats’ document, Chicago Public Schools would see a $173 million decrease in funding next year, and Waukegan schools would see a $4.5 million cut. Aurora East Unit District would see an $8.2 million dip, while Galesburg schools would lose $1.9 million.

But some districts will actually see funding boosts despite the tax rollback. The boosts occur mainly in the increasingly populous, property-rich suburbs, where property values are declining and enrollment totals are rising, said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Yorkville Community District schools would see a $1.9 billion boost in state funds and Carpentersville District schools will see a $6.4 million boost. Because both districts spend far more than the minimum amount the state determines must be spent to educate each student, some Democrats say the document is evidence that the state’s school funding system needs to be changed.

“The fact that districts which are pretty well off will do better is absurd,” state Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat and sponsor of legislation that would change the current formula to allocate money primarily based on a district’s poverty levels, said. “That’s proof we should stick a knife into the current formula.”

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