As Illinois pays more for pensions, and less for everything else, Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico says more local school districts are being forced into debt.
By Benjamin Yount
SPRINGFGIELD — Illinois is spending so much on pensions, schools are left on their own.
The state is being suffocated by its worst-in-the-nation $130 billion pension debt and annual $8 billion pension payment.
As Illinois pays more for pensions, and less for everything else, Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico said more local school districts are being forced into debt.
“Our schools are in free fall right now,” Chico told Illinois state senators Friday. “The number of districts (with) deficit spending will increase to 573, or two-thirds, of our school districts. That compares with only 415, or less than 50 percent, just the previous year.”
Chico said schools are asking the state for grant money to pay for “everyday teaching,” as opposed to special projects or special needs.
Chico asked lawmakers for nearly $5 billion for Illinois schools for next year. It would be enough money, he said, to “fully fund” education for the first time since 2011.
But the $5 billion would be just part of what Illinois spends to teach children.
Chico acknowledged the state money amounts to just 32.5 percent of all dollars spent on education.
State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said most of the rest of the nearly $30 billion total education price tag comes from local taxpayers via property taxes.
“Before we accept the premise of total free fall, I think we need to see that we are really going backwards,” Murphy said in countering Chico’s argument. “If you pared back a little bit, after $1 billion a year increase over a generation, most people would consider that unfortunate but necessary.”
Chico has said Illinois is ignoring its constitutional responsibility to pay for public education.
Schools in Illinois receive money through a complicated formula that sends more to districts without high property values, but it guarantees all schools some state money. Illinois’ per-pupil price tag is supposed to be $6,119. But not every district qualifies for that much money, and even those that do have been short-changed by the state because of budget cuts.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, in his new budget, has proposed cutting $400 million from public schools. Lawmakers note that Quinn’s budget is $500 million more than their proposal, so the cuts may have to be larger than what Quinn is expecting.
State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, thanked Chico for sounding the alarm on local school debt and the failure of Illinois to avoid it. But Bush is also realistic.
“I commend you,” Bush told Chico. “For coming here and asking for money we probably won’t be able to find.”
Reporter Benjamin Yount can be reached at [email protected]