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Taxpayer anger rising over school funding bill

 

     Taxpayer anger appeared to be building a head of steam this week over proposed state legislation that may result in the loss of millions of dollars in state aid to local public schools, cutbacks that include layoffs, and significant local property tax increases—all in the name of fairness.

That anger may burst next week at two town hall meetings designed to examine the projected impact of Senate Bill 16, the School Funding Reform Act of 2014.

The open forums are set for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22, at Conrady Junior High School, 7959 W. 97th St., Hickory Hills, and 6 to 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, Oct. 23, at Sandburg High School, 13300 S. La Grange Road, Orland Park.

“We’re getting fleeced in the name of fairness,” said Orland Park resident Dianne Brady, one of several local taxpayers who spoke with The Regional News on Saturday outside the Jewel/Osco near 131st Street and La Grange Road. “Look, I’m all for poorer school districts receiving more state funds, but not at the expense of my children. Rather than change the way we slice the pie, why not work together to make the pie bigger?”

Steve Walker, of Hickory Hills, used a parallel from history to illustrate his take on the situation.

“I get angry when I read about the bill’s supporters calling where I live ‘a wealthy school district.’ I mean really, are they kidding?” he asked. “They seem to think they’re Robin Hood doing a good thing for the poor, but I’m here to tell you: I’m not the Sheriff of Nottingham. People in my town struggle to pay our bills, just like everyone else.”

Maria Hernandez said that she and her family “moved to Palos Hills seven years ago, in large part because of the good schools—but now we’re going to get cut like this? It makes no sense at all to me.”

Featured speaker at next week’s town hall meetings will be Robert Grossi, Bloom Township treasurer and president of Crystal Financial Consultants, which provides financial advisory services to school districts throughout the state. A number of elected officials, school board members, school administrators, parents and other taxpayers are expected to attend.

The event is open to everyone living in School Districts 117, 118, 127, 135, 140, 146, and 230.

Background

SB 16, which passed the Illinois Senate in late May, is expected to be considered by the state House of Representatives as early as January, according to the bill’s opponents—although SB 16’s supporters have scoffed at that and pointed to the spring session of the General Assembly.

The bill’s principal sponsor is State Sen. Andy Manar, a freshman Democrat from Central Illinois elected in 2012 with support from the Illinois Education Association. A teacher by training, Manar is the former chief of staff to Senate President John Cullerton.

Manar describes SB 16 on his website as “a proposal to streamline the current hodgepodge of funding sources into one funding formula that would account for school districts’ funding needs. Today, only 44 percent of the state education spending is balanced against a local district’s ability to pay.

“Illinois has the second-most inequitable school funding system in the nation,” he continued. “Our current funding system is doing a disservice to taxpayers, school districts and, most importantly, our children. The funding system we are proposing will better address student needs, such as socio-economic background, language ability or special learning needs, while also accounting for a school district’s ability to raise funds locally.”

Winner and losers

In its current form, passage of SB 16 would mean annual state aid losses of approximately $7 million for Consolidated High School District 230. For its feeder districts, the estimated losses are:

• $5.1 million for Orland School District 135

• $4.2 million for North Palos School District 117

• $2.7 million for Kirby School District 140

• $1.9 million for Community Consolidated School District 146

• $1.4 million each for Palos School District 118 and Worth School District 127

            Other Southwest Suburban schools would suffer losses, as well, including approximately:

• $1.9 million for Oak Lawn-Hometown School District 123

• $1.6 million for Alsip-Hazelgreen-Oak Lawn School District 126

• $839,000 for Oak Lawn Community High School District 229

• $839,000 for Evergreen Park Elementary School District 124

• $364,000 for Atwood Heights School District 125

• $330,000 for Chicago Ridge School District 127-S

• $312,000 for Evergreen Park Community High School District 231

High School District 218 would see an annual gain of about $934,000 in state aid under the proposed re-formulation, but Palos Heights School District 128 would lose about $574,000.

Forty-one of the 42 school districts in DuPage County would see drops in state aid.

Chicago Public School District 299 would lose about $28.4 million annually, although that represents only about a one percent operating budget loss to the massive district.

In addition to downstate districts, big winners in the Chicago area would include a handful of South Suburban districts. Their estimated annual gains are:

• $7.3 million for Cook County Consolidated School District 130

• $5.7 million for Rich Township High School District 227

• $4.6 million for Thornton Fractional High School District 215

• $4.0 million for Dolton School District 149

• $4.0 million for Matteson School District 162

Schools weigh in

Several local school officials have weighed in with expressions of concern.

SB 16 is a “disastrous” proposal that “would negatively impact class size and educational programs at each of our three schools,” wrote Palos School District 118 Superintendent Anthony Scarsella in an open letter to the community. 

            The proposal “provides no additional funding for K-12 public education,” he added. “It merely redistributes the current inadequate pool of state resources. Senate Bill 16 pits school district against school district, community against community, and parent against parent as we all chase the same few state dollars that exist for K-12 education.”

            A letter co-signed by Orland School District 135 Superintendent Janet Stutz and Board President Joseph S. La Margo urged parents to contact local state legislators and pointed out that SB 16 in its current form will mean that the district will take “a loss equivalent to 67 staff positions and $1,046 per student, per year.”

In a letter penned by Palos Heights School District 128 Superintendent Kathleen Casey and signed by her and the school board, SB 16 was rapped because it “does not take into account those districts that have been financially responsible and maintained balanced budgets. It penalizes half of the school districts in the state for being in counties that limit annual property tax increases.

“SB 16 is strongly opposed by special-needs advocacy groups that feel it will negatively impact special needs education,” she added. “It does not ensure funding will end up in the classroom of the recipient school districts to improve student achievement. SB 16 may be modified to also include a shift in pension costs to local property taxpayers. 

“The loss of these revenues would have dire consequences on our educational programming and staffing,” Casey continued. “This bill would require significant cuts or else force the district to seek additional local funding through a referendum or increase in fees.”

If the measure is passed in its current form, District 128 “will receive only 18 percent (about $100,000) of our current state funding allotment (about $700,000), even though the Illinois Constitution requires the state to have the primary responsibility for financing public education,” Casey added. “Our district has experienced continued educational funding cuts by the state over the years, with an exorbitant increase in unfunded mandates. This bill will force 460 school districts in Illinois to face funding shortfalls in a state that already ranks 50th in the nation [according to the U.S. Department of Education].”

Dems vs. GOP

Political support for SB 16 has mostly fallen along partisan lines, with support from Chicago area and downstate Democrats and opposition from suburban Republicans.

Notable exceptions to that include 18th District State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes a number of suburbs. Earlier this year, he broke ranks to vote against the measure.

Also bolting the Democratic Party on SB 16 are 35th District State Rep. Fran Hurley and 36th District State Rep. Kelly Burke.

Burke told The Regional News that she finds the proposed legislation “troubling” and that the re-formulation is flawed in that it assumes that local school districts “are wealthy, when they are not, for the most part. They are middle class.”

She also said that SB 16 merely doles out more state aid to certain school districts without requiring accountability regarding how the funds will be spent.

In a standard response to constituents who asked, 14th District State Senator Emil Jones III—who voted for SB 16 last spring—noted that the bill “is by no means perfect and will not become law in its current form.”

He added that the kind of education a child receives should not be dictated by “the ZIP code where he/she lives.”

Beyond politics, Jones added that the proposed legislation has “started a debate we are having now on how to better educate all of our students and prepare them for the future.”

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Submitted photo

Palos School District 118 Superintendent Anthony Scarsella holds the 426-page Senate Bill 16 that threatens to strip $1.4 million from District 118 annually.

 

 

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