Money fight pits schools against teachers
By Benjamin Yount
SPRINGFIELD -- State school officials say the legislature needs to give local school districts more money -- but a legislative leader says money the state owes for teacher pensions makes that idea unrealistic.
Illinois’ appointed State Board of Education today asked lawmakers to pay for learning, approving a nearly $5-billion budget that would fully fund Illinois education for the first time since 2011.
“We are being besieged by districts that are in deep, deep (trouble) with their finances,” said ISBE Chairman Gery Chico. “And they don’t know where to go.”
Gery Chico, interviewed by reporters in Springfield.
But there’s little chance Illinois schools will get any more money. In fact, lawmakers say, Chico should actually expect less.
“The state board should get in on the reality of the world,” said state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion.
Bradley runs the powerful House Revenue Committee, and it is his job to set a spending cap for the new state budget.
Bradley said Illinois’ pension debt and other unpaid bills will make it impossible to spend more on schools.
“We have a pension payment that will go up $1 billion. We have $2.3 billion in employee health insurance claims. We have another $8 billion to $9 billion in unpaid bills,” Bradley said. “We are going to have to figure out how to cut a billion dollars from operations to make end meet.”
Bradley set the spending cap for the current budget at $33.2 billion. Illinois schools received $4.2 billion for education. Illinois’ pension payment was just over $6 billion.
“We are upside down, and things are getting worse,” said Bradley.
State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, said he will show those numbers to any teachers who come to the statehouse this spring to ask for more money for their classrooms.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Davis said today. “As a teacher you want to have your pension fully funded. But you also want all of the resources for your school.”
Davis has not backed Bradley and the House spending cap, and said he is unlikely to support the cap this year, despite being in charge of crafting the K-12 education budget in Illinois.
The spending cap “does not allow lawmakers to prioritize spending,” Davis said.
“I think education funding should be a priority and command the appropriate resources,” he said.
Illinois lawmakers return to the statehouse at the end of month to begin the budget process.
Bradley said the numbers are stacked against the $5-billion budget request from the State Board of Education.
“If we have to cut $1 billion from operations, and education is 40 percent of operations, that’s nearly $400 million,” Bradley added.
Davis said he would rather see lawmakers help local schools capture as much local money as they can. He expects to see new legislation dealing with local tax caps or local school referendum questions.
Chico said, in the end, lawmakers are going to make a moral judgment with the fiscal decisions.
“It is their call at the end of the day,” Chico said. “And I hope that they will agree with us, that for the future of Illinois there must be a competent level of funding.”