Rauner pushes for approval of revised school funding bill

H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner discusses Senate Bill 1 with the Northwest Herald editorial board and reporters on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 in Crystal Lake. The bill would rewrite Illinois’ Broken Education Funding Formula.
H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner discusses Senate Bill 1 with the Northwest Herald editorial board and reporters on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 in Crystal Lake. The bill would rewrite Illinois’ Broken Education Funding Formula.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Gov. Bruce Rauner accused Democrats in the General Assembly of sitting on Senate Bill 1 twice, risking state funding for Illinois schools to pass the bill in its current form.

Rauner on Tuesday vetoed SB 1, expecting the General Assembly to then discuss an alternate plan, override the veto or accept the changes to the bill that seeks to revamp a 20-year-old school funding formula that many critics call the worst in the nation.

Rauner, who met Thursday morning with the Northwest Herald editorial board, said he believes that lawmakers instead are waiting out time until school starts to generate pressure to pass the bill without the amendments, which he said would take billions of dollars from schools around Illinois and give it to Chicago Public Schools. Rauner met with the editorial board as part of a campaign to uphold his changes.

Democrats, who control both the House and Senate, approved SB 1 at the end of May, but held onto it for two months out of fear of Rauner’s promised amendatory veto. That veto set off a 15-day time limit for the Senate to act. Should it not call the veto for a vote, the legislation dies, leaving Illinois without a school budget.

Rauner said House Speaker Michael Madigan used tactics of “legislative extortion” when it comes to school funding.

“Most parents don’t know he’s doing that. They’re busy. They’re at summer vacation, kids’ sports. They’re getting ready for school,” Rauner said. “Speaker Madigan wants to surprise them in about two weeks when they think their school’s going to open, and then they come to find out they don’t have any money.”

Rauner later clarified that he knows of no schools that won’t be able to open their doors, but said he knows of many that can only stay open for about three to six months without state funding.

Madigan said in a statement after the veto that Rauner “has yet again chosen crisis over compromise” but that Democrats would continue to work with Republicans to enact fair school funding.

Rauner’s amendatory veto eliminates an annual block grant of $250 million to CPS that was established in 1995 to cover Chicago’s teacher pensions since it is the only school district in the state that pays for its own.

Rauner suggests that, with the removal of the block grant, Illinois start paying Chicago’s teacher pensions the same as it does for every other district around the state, but he said Chicago is trying to get both.

Although Rauner claims foul play by legislative Democrats, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel accused Rauner of “cynical politics” the morning of the amendatory veto.

“This morning Gov. Rauner vetoed SB 1, ignoring the needs of Illinois’ schoolchildren, the desires of school superintendents across the state, the voices of newspaper editorials across the state and the recommendations of his own education funding commission,” Emanuel said in a news release.

Emanuel said Rauner needs to stop “playing politics with our children’s futures, start demonstrating leadership and ensure a child’s education isn’t determined by their zip code or his political whims.”

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery echoed the mayor’s criticisms and alleged that the governor is pitting downstate school districts against Chicago for his own political gain.

“It is Gov. Rauner who vetoed a balanced, bipartisan budget to end a two-year crisis of his own making. And it is Gov. Rauner who vetoed an education funding bill that would bring more equity and fairness to our schools for the first time in decades, because he ‘only agrees with 90 percent of it,’ ” Montgomery said. “Yes, it is disappointing that our children’s future has become divisive, but it is the governor himself playing politics with their first day of school.”

Rauner said much of the reason for the CPS pension crisis is the 1995 decision by the city of Chicago and CPS to skip the city’s pension contributions for a 10-year period. Senate Bill 1 before the amendatory veto, Rauner said, would bail out Chicago for a poor decision at the cost of taxpayers across Illinois.

With Rauner’s amendatory veto, he estimated that Community High School District 155 would receive $220,000 more than what it would’ve received without it. Woodstock School District 200 would get $300,000 more, McHenry High School District 156 would get $100,000 more and Harvard School District 50 would get $500,000 more, Rauner estimated.

Rauner said these numbers cannot be confirmed until Illinois State Board of Education releases its

report Monday, but he believes the numbers to be fairly accurate.

Mark Altmayer, chief financial officer of Huntley Community Unit School District 158, said it will be a “dark day” for education in Illinois if SB 1 doesn’t pass, especially for the “hundreds of downstate districts that are completely reliant on state funding.”

District 158 oversees eight schools – five elementary schools, two middle schools and Huntley High School. Altmayer said that without state funding, their district still will be able to operate for an extended period of time.

District 156 oversees two high schools and serves more than 2,000 students. State funding accounts for slightly more than 10 percent of the district’s budget, and without it, the school still will be able to open its doors in a couple of weeks, Chief Financial Officer David Lawson said.

“Hopefully [Rauner] changes his mind or they override the veto,” Lawson said. “[State funding] is essential to many, many districts in the state.”

He said going the whole year without state funding “would certainly be a detriment to [the] district.”

This would cause them to dip into their fund balance and jeopardize the fund’s intended purposes, such as maintaining the district’s two high school buildings, one of which is a century old.

“If they don’t get anything done until [a] November, December time frame, from a cash flow standpoint, we will be fine. I think many of the districts around us will be fine,” Altmayer said. “That being said, I do not want to go the whole year without any state funding coming through, and that’s not going to happen because too many districts downstate won’t even be able to open their doors.”

In April, Tony Sanders, CEO of Elgin Area School District U-46, warned on Facebook and Twitter that without a state budget, its schools may not open their doors in August. District U-46 is the second largest district in Illinois.

The superintendent of a school district in downstate West Frankfort said the district does not have enough money to continue making payroll for long after the start of school.

State Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, agrees with the governor’s veto and hopes to put forward a plan she said she believes to be equitable across the state.

Althoff co-sponsored Senate Bill 1124, a bill she said she believes to be more equitable by not prioritizing Chicago public schools. She said, as an example, the bill would raise District 156’s per pupil gain from $78.55 to $127 and District 155’s from $55.08 to $89.06.

She passed legislation several years ago to determine whether or not the city of Chicago was using all of the block grant money for its intended purposes – she said the city only justified about half of it. The rest, she said, Chicago faked into their base formula.

“Obviously, we’ve seen year after year, whether it’s Chicago or any other school district in Illinois, throwing more money at them isn’t necessarily always the solution,” Althoff said, “So I just think at this particular point, they should be treated equitably with all the other school districts.”

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, also opposes SB 1, but is concerned with the overall amount of spending, and not just the funds allocated to CPS.

“It doesn’t have any real reforms. It doesn’t require school districts to cut administrative expenses,” McSweeney said. “It doesn’t require them to look at consolidation and it also doesn’t do anything about property taxes, and we’re just sending a lot of money back to the schools, but there’s no requirement to cut property taxes.”

McSweeney said he has led the fight against tax increases during his time in office and cannot agree with the increases he said this bill will cause. He said the current amount of money Illinois allocates toward education a year is reasonable, but the yearly increase under SB 1 is not.

While in Crystal Lake, the governor made several stops, including one for a haircut at Slim’s Barber Shop, 107 N. Main St.

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