Amid questions about property tax increases and teacher cuts, school officials across McHenry County reiterated one response to a proposed school funding overhaul sitting in the Illinois Legislature: They don't like it.
That's because the reform would cut most of the local school districts' funding, under estimates recently released by the state education board. Even officials in districts that reportedly would see increases labeled the state's estimates misleading.
Whether the Legislature acts on the reform or not, supporters say it addresses an often criticized 17-year-old state funding formula and helps close the disparity between poor and wealthy districts in Illinois.
But the shift in aid – primarily toward downstate districts – comes at a price for most McHenry County districts – small and large.
"We understand that they are trying to equalize the playing field, which is difficult to do, but it's also difficult to accept a $4.5 million loss in funding," McHenry District 15 Superintendent Alan Hoffman said. "That's a humongous cut for us."
The K-8 district would see the largest loss of state aid in the county. The $4.5 million cut represents 85.5 percent of the district's state funding.
If lawmakers do pass the reform, the district initially would be forced to operate at a deficit, Hoffman said, adding it "would be premature" to talk now about property tax increases or staff cuts as ways to make up for the possible revenue loss.
On paper, Carpentersville-based District 300 would see a $2.05 million increase in state aid from its 2013 reimbursements. But Chief Financial Officer Susan Harkin said the state's estimates actually would mean a $1.7 million cut since the district received more funding from the state this budget year.
With the income tax vote pending, state officials also don't know how much money they can spend on schools, making it difficult for the district to plan for the reform, she said.
"To go backwards and lose money under this model, when we are a district that spends $2,000 less on a student than the state average, doesn't make sense to me," Harkin said. "Until you know how much money is coming in, it's hard to know how to spend it."
As it stands now, Illinois schools get state money in a variety of ways. General state aid – the money used to offset the basic cost of educating students – is based on a formula that factors in poverty levels. But districts also get grants for special education, transportation and vocational training that don't factor in poverty.
It is in those programs that the restructuring proposal, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, would reduce funds to more wealthy districts and give it to poorer districts.
Since the formula was last changed in 1997, spending increases on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general aid. Advocates for the formula change say that results in the poorest districts being hurt most during tough budget years. Districts can supplement state aid with local property taxes, but that leads to a wide disparity in how much is spent on students from one district to another.
Alden-Hebron District 19 Superintendent Debbie Ehlenburg said her small district would see significant losses in transportation and other specialized programs under the proposal. Officials would have to retool busing routes and reduce its fleet to conserve costs.
The K-12 district that serves fewer than 500 students would see an 83.6 percent cut in state aid under the proposal – the second largest in the county.
"We have worked hard to tighten our belts the last several years," Ehlenburg said. "It obviously is going to hurt ... We are not a district with a large fund balance, so it would be tight."
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.
School funding overhaul
Local school districts that would see some of the largest losses by percentage under SB16 are:
1. McHenry District 15: 85.5 percent ($4.55 million total)
2. Alden-Hebron District 19: 83.6 percent ($364,040)
3. Riley District 18: 82.7 percent ($247,951)
4. Nippersink District 2: 79.5 percent ($964,850)
5. Prairie Grove District 46: 77.1 percent ($548,219)