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Schools looking for more money next year

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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois taxpayers can voice their opinions on how the state should spend money on elementary and secondary education at five public hearings throughout the state.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois taxpayers can voice their opinions on how the state should spend money on elementary and secondary education at five public hearings throughout the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, will hold its first hearing, beginning at 4 p.m. Wednesday at its office here. Other hearings are scheduled for Chicago, Wheeling, Champaign and Edwardsville.

"Public feedback in the budget making process is extremely critical in these tough economic times, because it provides insight into local priorities and puts a face to the more than 2 million students served through state funds in Illinois public schools," James Baumann, Finance and Audit Committee chairman for the board, said in a written statement.

School funding in Illinois is generally set up so local tax money makes up 55 percent of a school's budget, state funding accounts for 35 percent and federal funds make up the remaining 15 percent.

Part of the discussion Wednesday will involve who pays what.

Gov. Pat Quinn's Education Funding Advisory Board, or EFAB is recommending that the state raise its level of funding by $4 billion next fiscal year.

EFAB said its suggestion could be accomplished by raising the foundation level per student from $6,119 to $8,360 and offering more money to schools in areas with high poverty rates.

How much each school district receives annually from the state depends on how much local property is worth. Ninety-three percent of school districts qualify for the foundation level of general state aid, which was $6,119 this school year. The rest qualify for significantly less money, while extremely poor districts are eligible for more than the foundation level.

Any increase in general state aid next year would be the first such increase since the 2008 school year.

State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said the $4 billion is needed to give children the best education, but it's unlikely to happen.

"The problem is the revenue and finding the dollars to support that foundation level in this economy and with all the other competing factors," Eddy, who is also a superintendent at Hutsonville Community School District, said.

It's not a matter of withholding extra money for education. Instead, legislators are putting paying outstanding bills and other obligations without borrowing ahead of increasing education funding, Eddy said.

"For years, we had foundation level increases and we shorted pension payments, that's kind of how we did that during the (former Gov. Rod) Blagojevich years," he said.

This spring marked the first time in two years the state made its contribution to Illinois' five public pension funds without borrowing. The Legislature and Quinn increased income taxes earlier this year that will likely result in an extra $6.5 billion annually, but that money is tied up in eliminating the state's structural deficit.

Plus, the state has almost $4 billion in overdue bills to schools, social service providers and other business partners that are set to receive any extra money the state brings in.

Larger pension payments, more money tied up in Medicaid and other factors have translated into an effective freeze of general state aid to schools. Schools have had to cut programs and lay off staff because of the cost of normal inflation outpacing money from the state and local tax bases.

Vicki Hardy, superintendent of Carthage Elementary School District in western Illinois, laid off three teachers, or about 10 percent of her staff of 30, since general state aid was frozen.

Local school districts could raise their property taxes to generate more money, but for places like Carthage, that's a nonstarter among community members.

"We're a farming community, a low-income community. I don't think you're going to be able to squeeze anymore out of" the residents, Hardy said.

Hardy's district receives 1.47 percent of the value of a property in the district. Under that formula, the owner of a house worth $100,000 would pay $1,470 annually to the school district of about 400 youth.

"It's just getting tougher on the teachers and tougher on the administration to keep things going, to keep the doors open," Hardy said.

Here's the full schedule of hearings:

  • Oct. 19, Springfield, 4 to 6 p.m., ISBE office, 100 N. First St.
  • Oct. 24, Edwardsville, 3 to 5 p.m., Jon Davis Wrestling Center, 6168 Center Grove Road
  • Oct. 27, Champaign, 3 to 5 p.m., Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green St.
  • Nov. 1, Wheeling, 3 to 5 p.m., Wheeling School District 21, 999 W. Dundee Road
  • Nov. 29, Chicago, 3 to 6 p.m. James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St.

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