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Schools prepare for more cuts as lawmakers begin spring session

Students pack hallway their way their next class August 22 2012 LarkHigh School Elgin.    August 22 2012

Students pack the hallway on their way to their next class August 22, 2012 at Larkin High School in Elgin. August 22, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 6, 2013 6:11AM

Lawmakers return this week to the Illinois State Capitol for the spring legislative session — and “some real soul-searching,” according to state Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin.

There are bills about firearms restrictions, gay marriage and medical marijuana use proposed for this session, according to the Illinois Association of School Boards.

When it comes to education, there are proposals about teacher pensions and school safety, IASB said. And Gov. Pat Quinn already has indicated K-12 education could face another $400 million cut in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget, the association said.

That comes as public education has seen decreases of about $800 million over the last three fiscal years in the state, it said.

And, Noland said, “We are already the lowest spending state in the nation. We have the worst credit rating in the nation.

“We have got to face facts that it has been a long time coming, but with regard to our state budget change, I believe has finally come. Things could not get worse, so in order for them to get better, we have some real soul-searching to do.”

Most worrisome to some area school districts is what that could mean for the general state aid they receive from Illinois for each student. Some of those district fear they could be in for a 20 percent cut this year.

Neither IASB Deputy Executive Director Ben Schwarm nor Noland have heard any specific numbers or percentages officially attached to the possibility of cuts to GSA, they said. ISBE even called for the state to increase its education spending last week.

But, Noland said, “It would not surprise me if those figures were being considered, given the dire straits the state is in. Everything has to be on the table.”

Aid formula

General State Aid gives general flexible state aid to schools in an equitable manner, determined by a statutorily-defined funding formula, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The formula provides different methods of funding allocation, mostly depending on the equalized assessed valuation of property within a school district.

The foundation level for that formula has been $6,119 annually per student since 2010, although that amount has been prorated by state lawmakers since fiscal year 2009, according to ISBE spokesperson Mary Fergus. That comes from a shortfall in funds that should have gone into GSA, Fergus said.

This fiscal year alone, the appropriated funds fell $518 million short of the amount necessary to fully make those payments, according to ISBE. That means districts have received just 89 percent of the amount owed them by statutory formula, it said.

Impact on D300

A 20 percent drop in GSA in the coming fiscal year would cost Community Unit School District 300 $1.5 million, according to the district.

That’s a number the Carpentersville-based district said it got from ISBE. And it’s not the only one projecting that drop. West Aurora School District 129 also has presented that number to its school board and posted a letter to district families on its website, warning the board soon may order the development of a financial reduction plan for the district.

That comes on top of a 6.3 percent drop in the GSA districts already have experienced this school year and a 5 percent drop last year, District 300 said.

That’s a total $1.25 million District 300 has lost over the past two years, pushing the district to cut transportation to many programs; eliminate a number of middle and high school electives, as well as reduce kindergarten PE, music and media services; increase class sizes; and more, it said.

And the $6,119 the district now receives in GSA for each student is “not nearly adequate,” according to the D300 Legislative Digest it distributed at its legislative reception in January.

ISBE said last week that adequate funding would mean an increase of $2,553 per student. That would raise the foundation level for districts like 300 to $8,672 per student, it said.

That’s why the District 300 Board Legislative Committee made the GSA and categorical funding the state has cut or fallen behind in paying its top priority this school year.

“We are continuing our focus on educating and motivating our staff and community to stay connected with our legislators and other state leaders on this issue and our other legislative priorities,” said Allison Strupeck, District 300 spokesperson..

U46: ‘Devastating’

Elgin School District U46 has not heard that 20 percent number, according to spokesperson Patrick Mogge. But, he said, the $400 million in education cuts the governor has proposed “could be devastating depending on how this is done.”

A 20 percent drop in GSA would mean a $6.5 million decrease from the $62.8 million that the second largest school district in Illinois was promised this year, Mogge said. That’s a decrease from $67.2 million last year and $69.3 the year before that, he said.

And the district only has received 89 percent of that amount, he reminded.

Already, past drops in funding have forced U46 to change its routes for high school transportation, picking up students at their nearest middle schools rather than in their neighborhoods. It also has not purchased new school buses for three years.

“We have gone through budget cuts in the past, and any decrease in funding would cause a disruption in our district,” Mogge said.

While District 300 has said it is opposed to any proration to GSA this year, Board Legislative Committee co-chair Steve Fiorentino admitted, “We don’t have all the answers. What we do know, though, is we have a community that is very involved.”

Noland has pointed to structural tax reform, which he believes would reduce the need for those cuts, he said.

And state Rep. Keith Farnham, D-Elgin stressed the need to grow the state’s economy during saying, “I really don’t believe we can cut our way out of this.”

But what the state education budget — really, the entire state budget — comes back to this session is “what we’re going to do about our pension system,” Noland said.

“Everything revolves around that at this point,” he said. “Details of that vote and that legislation remain to be seen. We’re going to be working on it as soon as we convene ... I look forward to voting on pension reform sooner rather than later.”

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