Educators Prepare For Wide Funding Swing In State Budget

Apr 11, 2014

Credit Flickr user / alamosbasement "old school" (CC BY 2.0)

Budget battles will soon get underway in Springfield. Several possible scenarios could play out under Illinois’ next spending plan. That includes deciding what to do with the expiring income-tax hike. The situation is leaving educators with more uncertainty than usual.

It was two weeks ago when Governor Pat Quinn delivered his budget address at the Illinois capital. Even though it didn't receive heavy focus during the speech, the part that stood out to many was the governor’s mention of the state's income-tax hike, which is scheduled to expire in January.

Quinn wants to make permanent the current rate of 5-percent. He says letting it roll back would result in significant budget cuts. The governor reiterated that point when he visited Northern Illinois University last week.

“We will have a budget decline of about 12-million dollars for this university, right here,” Quinn said.

Quinn also says local school districts would take a hit, resulting in things like massive teacher layoffs.

Republicans, and even some Democratic lawmakers, have voiced opposition to letting the tax-hike stand. They argue that cuts can be made elsewhere in the budget, leaving the state wiggle room to protect education dollars.

From other corners in Springfield, there’s even been talk about adopting a short-term budget, and holding off key decisions until after the November elections.

All of the political rhetoric over state spending is leaving local education officials in a tight spot; they’re essentially being told to prepare for the worst, but also plan on not seeing reductions.

Ehren Jarrett is the superintendent for the Rockford Public School District. He says what concerns him the most is the uncertainty.

“We have a 400-million dollar budget, and yet we have been told you can look for as low as 69-percent proration of the per-pupil funding from the state, or as high as 91 [percent]. That’s a huge swing when you’re talking about the kind of dollars we’re looking at in this district,” Jarrett said.

Roughly 40-percent of Rockford’s budget is made up of state funding. Jarrett says they’re lucky to have built up some reserves. But he says they don’t want to tap into it if lawmakers don’t address the potential loss in revenue.

“It doesn’t take long with big swings like that for us to look at the only other alternative,” Jarrett said.

That would be cuts. Jarrett says if that scenario were to play out, they could be forced to scale back their longer school days.

What teachers are saying

In some classrooms, talk over state funding  is paid attention to, but not as closely. Cyndy Janssen is a second grade teacher at Rockford's Bloom Elementary. She’s aware of what’s being discussed at the state level, but she doesn’t put much stock into what politicians are saying.

“Everybody hears ‘we’re gonna increase education spending’ – I think I’ve probably heard that for [all] 20 years of my teaching,” Janssen

But still Janssen says that doesn’t mean there isn’t any concern over what might happen.

“We know that what everyone says at the state level rolls down to us, and that it will eventually affect my classroom,” Janssen said.

One of Janssen’s biggest concerns is the effect on class size, which she says can be a serious challenge at the elementary if the class size gets too large. Meanwhile, the Illinois Board of Education warns that more than 13-thousand teachers statewide could be laid off, if drastic cuts are included in the new budget.

All of this comes as lawmakers consider a plan to drastically change the funding formula for Illinois school districts. While many education officials have voiced support for the plan, what they would really like right now is a little more certainty about what might happen in the next fiscal year.