Schools watch, wait for Illinois to approve education funding

Despite the recent passage of a budget, in a sense, the impasse isn’t quite over in Illinois. Funding for K-12 education was left out because there’s a renewed push to change the school funding formula. Some schools may not stay open for long without the passage of the bill to change that formula. 

"Don’t threaten to hold up schools opening. Don’t threaten our teachers. Don’t threaten our students,” said Gov. Bruce Rauner during a speech in Mt. Zion, Illinois on Monday.

Rauner is urging the state Senate to send him the bill for the evidence-based funding formula model, Senate Bill 1. But after Rauner’s promised Monday to make an amendatory veto that would remove millions in funding to Chicago teacher pensions, some lawmakers are urging Rauner to stop playing politics and work with them to fund public schools.

Senate Bill 1 would channel more money into low income districts while leaving current state funding amounts in place for higher income districts.

But, one month before the school year begins, many school leaders still worry about getting any state funding this year. While schools in Illinois were in a similar spot last year, many school leaders say they’re in a far worse spot financially this year to wait out the politics in Springfield. Lawmakers ended the years-long process of prorating general state aid for schools, but with no state budget in place, the state comptroller was unable to send schools three out of the four categorical payments they’re owed. The categorical payments fund transportation and special education, among other programs.

School administrators at Meridian schools in Mounds say they need that state funding to keep programs going for kids in the long run.

In just a few weeks, students and teachers will head back to class at Meridian schools. Third grade teacher Sharon Craig and her students will enter a long-awaited new building.

"I was actually in two mobile classrooms over the past two years, so it’s going to be a big change. But I think it’ll be great for the kids," Craig said. But, unless lawmakers approve education funding soon, they won’t be able to keep kids inside those new classrooms very long.

"We really are dependent upon grants and general state aid. Without those and the categoricals, we can’t function. That’s our revenue," said Meridian CUSD 101 Superintendent Spencer Byrd. Byrd said without that funding, the school district can stay in session for 40 business days at most.

Meridian is a 100 percent poverty district, Byrd said, and would likely be one of the first in the state to close. But — with kids relying on their school for meals as well as an education — he said his students, more than most, don’t need a forced break from school.

"That’s always a thought in the back of my head," Craig said. It’s not her job, but the kids she worries about most.

"All of these kids have come to be like family to me. So for them to not possibly have a school to come to or to have to go even farther, it’s worrisome for me and for the families," she said.

"We’ve really got to just progress forward as if everything’s going to be fine, because hopefully it will," Byrd said. Lawmakers need to pass something soon, Byrd said, or kids in Mounds and other communities like it will suffer the consequences.

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