State and local officials gathered for the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce Eggs & Issues meeting Friday and shared a meal, but the topic of conversation after the meal was unpalatable — late school funding payments and the lack of a state budget for three years now.
While the discussion quickly gave way to Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, and Rep. Mike Unes, R-East Peoria, as they expressed their frustrations with Springfield, it was started off by Sarah Hartwick, Illinois State Board of Education Co-Director of Legislative Affairs.
“Just so you’re aware, the State Board of Education has not taken a position of any of the funding proposals to date,” said Hartwick. “We have maintained neutrality, most importantly because we have access at the agency and have not been able to dive deep enough into the proposals for us to answer questions, run numbers, (and) kind of just support the conversations and the process that have taken place.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner a year ago created the School Funding Reform Commission composed of legislators, governor’s office employees and community members, said Hartwick. A number of proposals were discussed, but three main bills made some headway — SB 1124, SB 0001 and HB 2108. SB 0001 did pass the Senate and moved to the House where a number of changes were made. It passed the House this week and will be sent to the Governor, but the question is when.
Hartwick said a budget bill passed the Senate but did not make it through the House. The budget bill requires a new school funding formula. So if the budget ever passes, a formula will need to be in place.
Koehler said the Senate is going to hold the school funding bill until the “rhetoric dies down. The governor has kind of used this as a campaign tool again to blast it and say it’s a bailout for Chicago. It’s not. It treats Chicago as it does every other school district, with fairness. He’s already in political mode. I don’t know how we begin to get out of the political mess we’ve been in for the past two years, but it’s going to have to take some cooler heads and less fiery rhetoric on this. The election is two years away, but you wouldn’t know it.”
Unes said he didn’t like SB 0001 because there was a $250 million block grant previously added for pension payment and reallocated in this bill. In addition, another $225 million was put in the bill for Chicago School pensions and another credit was added for pensions to the Chicago School district. Unes said that equals close to $700 million.
“We owe our schools right now billions of dollars, and in order for downstate schools to benefit after that bailout there was going to have to be an additional $300 million put in the bill just to keep our schools at hold harmless,” said Unes. “At a time when we have over $2 billion in payments that we already owe to our schools — I don’t know how that’s possible. Again, that’s not what the Senate originally voted on.”
Local Attorney Dennis Triggs in the audience said people are leaving the state.
“Doesn’t there come a time in the state of Illinois in this area where we say that we are in crisis ... I’m telling you there comes a time when I can’t sit here and you can’t sit there and think the state of Illinois is not going to go down the tubes,” said Triggs, who complimented the work of Unes and Koehler. “I would like my children and grandchildren to live in this state — I think. You need to do that — you need to make sure every legislator you know is willing to buck the leadership because the leadership stinks.”
East Peoria District 86 Superintendent Tony Ingold said he appreciates the honest answers Koehler and Unes provide when the district asks questions.
“I can accept reductions, cuts, whatever the case may be, and say, ‘Look, you’re going to get X-amount of dollars and resources,’” said Ingold. “ The difference is, we need receive whatever that X-amount is and I think that’s been the problem.”
Ingold said the district was supposed to get three categorical payments and has only received one. He said that’s money they budgeted and depended on. Districts could go the rest of the year with no funding, he said.
Koehler said compromise is needed in Springfield, but “right now we have an atmosphere that’s toxic. Compromise is a bad word.” He said money in politics is a “bad thing.” People who buck the leadership face bankrolled opponents in elections, he said.
Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin