Schools facing another year of deep funding cuts
By Jenette Sturges firstname.lastname@example.org February 12, 2013 5:26PM
A couple of students walk northbound on Channing Street in Elgin earlier this month. The state of Illinois is possibly making cuts to the education budget, which local school officials say, could be devastating. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 14, 2013 6:30AM
In 2009, the West Aurora School District closed an elementary school, slowed down its maintenance schedule and laid off teachers in the name of balancing the budget.
And this year’s not looking so good, either.
“We have not been a school district that routinely sends out (layoff) notices. This time, there’s a possibility,” said West Aurora schools spokesman Mike Chapin. “We may be looking at some of our busing, adjusting the routes again.”
Driver’s education won’t be eliminated, he said, but it could face changes. Student fees could increase.
“It’s hard to say what we will do, because that really ultimately comes down to how much state revenue we get,” Chapin said.
And the state is already warning districts to expect a lot less funding this year — only about 80 percent of what districts are allotted under Illinois’ General State Aid formula.
If those warnings from Springfield turn out to be true once the state budget is finalized, approximately $38 million in general state aid funding will disappear from Fox Valley schools for the 2013-14 school year.
Because most state funding is directed at the poorest school districts across Illinois, the districts serving the poorest students stand to lose the most from state budget cuts.
Hitting poor schools hardest
East Aurora, for instance, a property-poor district that receives more than half its revenue from the state and where more than 80 percent of students come from low-income families, would lose about $8.3 million in funding from general state aid next year.
But that’s on top of the nearly $10 million the district lost out on this year when the state cut general state aid payments, according to estimates from the Illinois State Board of Education.
By contrast, Dave Zager, associate superintendent for finance for the Naperville School District, said Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed $400 million in spending cuts would hit the Naperville school system to the tune of about $500,000 — about 8 percent of the district’s support from general state aid. But Zager said it’s too soon to say what that would mean.
“We just try to balance what we’ve got,” he said.
The Oswego School District would lose slightly more than $4 million. West Aurora stands to lose out on $3.8 million, and Indian Prairie would lose more than $1.7 million.
“These huge cuts disproportionately hurt property-poor districts, those with high foreclosure rates, they are going to be hit hard,” said State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia of Aurora, who is the chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.
Chapa LaVia said she’s working to draft a bill that would change the formula for how general state aid dollars are divided up among school districts.
“They’re all totally, unbelievably different,” in programs and students, but also in how they can bring in revenue, she said.
A new bill, which she hopes to get to the governor’s desk by late spring, would ask for “some sacrifice more in the property-rich districts” that are less dependent on state funds.
The problem of lots of school children and little money to educate them is statewide, say both legislators and school administrators.
“The 100-pound gorilla in the room is how do we pay our pension obligation?” said Chapa LaVia.
Until the problem of unfunded pension liability is solved, it will continue to divert money from education and social services, she said.
But Springfield is looking to school districts to pick up the tab for teachers’ pensions, too. The shift of the pension cost would likely be gradual, taking up to 10 years, and could ultimately, if laws are changed, give school districts more control over teacher compensation and pension funding.
Adding pension payments while cutting state aid amounts to a 1-2 punch that many school districts can’t afford, said administrators.
“If you leave it up to individual school districts to pay, you’re going to have a differentiation in how they’re able to pay for it,” said Chapin.
That could ultimately lead to less money in classrooms, and more difficulty for poorer school districts to attract quality teachers, he said.
For now, that proposition is still up in the air, but some school districts have started doing their own math.
“If pension reform actually happened in our state for next year, we would see $800,000 less,” said Indian Prairie spokesman Janet Buglio, in an e-mail. “Again, we haven’t identified any programs that would be cut to make up for that $800,000 if that actually happened.”
It all adds up to the Fox Valley’s school districts subtracting a lot from their budgets.
The East Aurora School District has been shoring up its reserves for just such a rainy day, said spokesman Clayton Muhammad.
Creative cuts, private funding coming
“No RIF lists,” said Muhammad, referring to the reduction-in-force lists that school districts must draft each spring if they think they may need to lay off teachers. “We have a superintendent who is very adamant about that. There will be no RIF lists, and no cuts to education programs. Those dollars are there in reserve.”
Muhammad said East Aurora has been working to identify other sources of revenue — for one, the district has been adding grant-writers to bring in funding from private foundations and corporations to supplement the tax dollars it receives.
And the district is looking to creatively cut costs without taking dollars from the classroom, like partnering with neighboring districts on contracted services.
West Aurora, too, is looking for donors in the community to step up and get involved with its A+ Foundation that supports the schools by funding teacher wish lists, among other needs.
“Such foundations for public school districts, which used to be a rarity, are now exploding,” said Chapin. “In the future, there wont be enough public funding for quality education in states like Illinois. We’re going to have to rely like a lot of universities and private schools do on looking for outside revenue.”
Other Fox Valley districts are looking elsewhere, like raising student fees, or maybe even imposing a countywide sales tax, which is already in place in several downstate Illinois counties.
“Some districts have large cash reserves,” said Chapin. “The ones that don’t are the ones making more cuts. The others can draw down on their reserves for a while. But ultimately, if we don’t change the way schools are funded in Illinois, just about every school district will be in trouble.”