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Bill of wrongs: Local schools, taxpayers aren’t buying Senate Bill 16

 

     Taxpayers who came to Sandburg High School ready for a fight last Thursday unclenched their fists a bit after hearing that proposed legislation that would strip millions of dollars from local schools will not be considered by the Illinois House of Representatives until next spring.

Orland School District 135 Board President Joseph S. La Margo shared that news with more than 200 parents and others at a town hall forum at about the impacts of Senate Bill 16, the School Funding Reform Act of 2014.

The event was hosted at Sandburg High School by School District 230 and included officials, parents and others from school districts 117, 118, 127, 135, 140, 146, and 230.

The proposed state legislation, passed by the Senate last May but not yet considered by the House, would if unchanged 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 and re-distributing middle-class tax dollars to impoverished school districts.

Those who oppose SB 16 have expressed fears in recent weeks that the bill’s supporters would try to slip the measure through the House in the lame-duck, veto session in January.

“This is encouraging news,” said Palos Park resident David Baumgarten, whose grandchildren attend District 118 schools. “The politicians pushed us, and we pushed back. We were afraid that the Democrats would play dirty and ram it through in January, but now it looks like we have some breathing room with this bill, time to right this wrong.”

La Margo called the tabling of the House bill good news, but added a note of caution.

“Until this bill is completely killed, we will continue to inform our communities of its financial impact to our districts,” La Margo said from the lectern. “We cannot presume that any changes or modifications will be made [before it is considered in the spring].”

After the meeting La Margo warned against complacency.

“It’s a always a concern that people are going to lay off a bit and assume that [the proposed legislation] will go by the wayside, but then the [proponents] may try to sneak it through, so we have to keep an eye on this,” he noted. “It’s important for all of us to stay on our legislators to make sure they stand with us in opposing this.”

La Margo, the father of three—and soon to be four–children in local public schools, added that if SB 16 were passed in its current form, the financially healthy district will have exhausted its financial reserves and be “out of money” within three to five years—assuming it does not cut services or lay off staff.

Parents at the event were clear and not shy about their opposition to SB 16.

“I have a huge stake in this,” said Orland Park resident Tracy Pelini, president of the District 135 Parents For Education (PFE) organization and a mother of four children enrolled in district schools—a seventh grader the three fourth graders. “I’m a taxpayer, I own a home here in town, and I want the taxes I pay—which are substantial—to go to my children’s education. My husband and I work very hard for the house own and the life that we have.

“We moved to Orland Park specifically because of the high quality of education, and I don’t want to see anything happen to that,” she added. “I absolutely agree that all children deserve a good education, without a doubt, but I think our legislators need to come up with a better way to fund education. What they’re proposing with this bill is not the way to do it. You cannot take from some to give to others.”

PFE members staffed two tables at the event, urging people to sign a petition against SB 16. By the time the two-hour event ended, volunteers had boosted their cumulative total to about 1,000 signatures. Those who have not yet signed but want to are encouraged to visit ipetitions.com and conduct an “Orland” search of the website.

Keynote speaker at Thursday’s meeting was 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 and others were on hand to express their concern about the proposed legislation.

Grossi told the audience that if SB 16 is passed in its current form, the Southwest Suburbs will be negatively affected “more than any other area in the state.”

He added that a robust economic recovery would essentially solve the current school-funding dilemma, but that with the state’s loss of population and jobs, he remains “skeptical about the future of education funding in Illinois.”

Pulling in the loudest applause of the evening was Hickory Hills resident Debbie Chaffee, a home-based business analyst an project manager, as well as mother of two children attending schools in the North Palos District 117.

Chaffee has been the lead organizer of a grassroots effort to stop SB 16. Via her website, EDGEIllinois.com, she has attracted statewide attention and helped muster parents, school officials and others.

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 Senator 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 $7.0 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

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 Senator 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 Representative Fran Hurley and 36th District State Representative Kelly Burke.

Burke has said 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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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Consolidated High School District 230 Board President Rick Nogal holds aloft a copy of the 450-page Senate Bill 16, a move that brought mocking laughter from some in the crowd at Sandburg High School last Thursday. The bill, which proposes to reform state funding of education by reducing support for some districts and increasing aid for others, has touched off a firestorm of protest in many middle-class suburban communities.

 

color page1 4cols SB16townhall 103014-copy

Photo by Tim Hadac

Consolidated High School District 230 Superintendent James Gay offers introductory comments to an audience of several hundred parents, teachers, school administrators, elected officials and others last Thursday at Sandburg High School.

 

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