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Latest fight at Illinois Capitol threatens money for schools

AP photo
Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, talks with Illinois State Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, on the floor of the Illinois Senate as the chamber comes to order Thursday during the second day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol in Springfield.
AP photo Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, talks with Illinois State Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, on the floor of the Illinois Senate as the chamber comes to order Thursday during the second day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol in Springfield.

CHICAGO – Schools in Illinois could start classes in a few weeks without receiving any state money to help pay teachers, buy supplies or keep lights on, as a new front in the yearslong fight between the Republican governor and majority Democrats threatens funding for roughly 850 districts statewide.

Democrats for nearly two months have held off on sending a funding bill to GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner because he's pledged to strip money for Chicago Public Schools that he's declared a "bailout." If the two sides can't reach an agreement, some poorer districts worry they won't be able to keep the school doors open into fall.

It's just the latest man-made crisis to hit Springfield, where lawmakers earlier this month voted to override Rauner's veto to end a state budget impasse that stretched into a third year, creating billions in debt and forcing some domestic violence shelters and other social service programs to shut down.

School administrators, who faced a similar worry last year due to the budget standoff, say there's a feeling of deja vu – and dread.

"This year the stalemate is longer and you can tell it's a lot more intense," said Todd Covault, chief operations officer and treasurer for Decatur Public Schools. "Right now there's no assurance any money is going to be coming."

Covault estimates the district in central Illinois – one of the state's largest – will run out of money in mid-November if lawmakers can't work something out. By then, "there's going to be a lot of other districts ready to go under."

Funding remains an issue because the budget deal lawmakers approved stated that any money for K-12 education must be distributed through a new formula intended to reduce large disparities between districts.

Democrats who control the Legislature adopted the plan in May but Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago decided to hold on to the bill rather than send it to Rauner.

Cullerton said this week he's concerned about Rauner's "mental state" after a massive defeat on the budget, followed by the firing or resignation of many top staffers, and didn't want the governor to act out of anger. He said he hoped that Rauner would sit down with Democrats to work out a compromise, but either way he'll send him the bill on Monday.

Rauner, a businessman-turned-governor who's seeking his second term in 2018, said he'll use his amendatory veto powers to remove millions allocated to the nation's third-largest school district.

He's objected to $215 million to help cover the cost of teacher pensions, as the state does for other districts but not Chicago, and another $250 million block grant. Rauner called lawmakers to Springfield this week for three days of a special session to deal with the issue, but with no bill to act on and no negotiations occurring, he's spent time blasting Cullerton and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago for holding up the process.

"Turn in your homework," Rauner implored the two leaders on Thursday, after lawmakers adjourned for the day after just a few minutes. "We're all here. There is no excuse for us not to be working on that bill."

Railing against Chicago, its financially troubled schools and its politicians has been a tried and true political strategy for Rauner, who used it to win his first public office in 2014 and has maintained the theme as his poll numbers have sunk, making him one of the nation's most vulnerable GOP governors.

He's called Madigan "cold-blooded" and a "tyrant" who's taking money from schools outside Chicago. The comments have stoked hard feelings toward the Democratic stronghold among many voters in more conservative areas outside the city – people Rauner must motivate to support him if he hopes to be re-elected.

If Rauner uses his veto pen to amend the legislation, it would return to the Legislature. There, three-fifths of lawmakers in both chambers must vote either to override Rauner or accept his changes and have the bill take effect immediately so money may be distributed. Neither scenario appears likely, according to the bill's Democratic sponsor, Sen. Andy Manar.

That would mean no money for any district, and lawmakers would have to start all over to change a funding formula they've been talking about fixing for years. Meanwhile, the first state payments are supposed to be sent to school districts in early August.

Cullerton warned Rauner on Thursday that he's setting up another showdown with lawmakers on an override, and urged him to join Democrats for "rational discussions" about the changes he wants.

"We've done our homework. ... All the governor has to do is sign his name to get credit," he said.

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