Late this spring, I was walking into our district’s administrative offices for meetings. As I made it up to the business office, I ran into the administrator tasked with trying to make sense of what is going on financially in this state right now in order to develop a budget for my district.
He looked exactly as you would expect school business officials to look right now. Trying to lighten the mood, I greeted him with, “How’s it goin’ Dr. Death?”
I did get a quick smile out of the moment and then offered to have the association pay for a costume for him to wear for his future board presentations much like the one worn during the Steve Bannon portrayal on Saturday Night Live.
He again laughed but admitted it’s not too far off. He then summed up this mess in one simple statement. “How am I supposed to make a budget when I don’t even know what the funding formula is?”
Maddeningly, this has an impact that most of the public doesn’t understand. We have potential ESSA implementation. We need materials for the required Next Generation Science Standards. We still need more materials for common core. Our buildings need maintenance. Learning, safety, Title 1 students, free and reduced lunch students are all massively impacted.
It isn’t a particularly difficult concept to grasp. Our students are drastically and directly impacted by the mess that Illinois is in. Yet we’re supposed to go about our business of educating children in a massively changing educational world, and districts across the state have no idea what their funding will be.
You’d think this would be one thing that everyone could rally around, but it isn’t. We remain stuck with finger pointing and personal agendas fueling every move in Springfield and our students are in the crosshairs.
I am entering my fourth year as president of our local. I went back and looked at our building rep meeting minutes from my first year as president. The first time I mentioned to our building reps that passing a budget could be an issue was late February 2015. Everyone got a little antsy as we talked about the idea of going into the summer not having a budget.
This was of particular concern as we were bargaining at the time. Obviously, not knowing what amount of money would be coming in was causing tremendous strain on both sides. We had no idea what we were walking into. It put us in an almost impossible situation.
None of us, though, could have possibly seen though how this would play out.
In the course a few short months, the message went from, “We may not have a budget until June,” to “We may not have a budget until mid-summer,” to “We may not have a budget this year,” to “We may not have a budget under Rauner.” Luckily, I was wrong. They actually passed a budget.
However, the relief of a budget finally being passed was quickly erased as the grim realization set in that schools weren’t out of the woods. There is no school funding unless a new funding formula is passed.
We all know that Illinois woefully underfunds its public schools at the state level, ranking 50th out of 50 states in contributions to education. It has not gotten any better.
When the recession hit, my district, like many others, was forced to make brutal cuts. Over the course of two years, we slashed almost $40 million from the budget. This caused class sizes to skyrocket (we are among the highest in the state right now); all employees had to take pay freezes; and massive cuts were made to our building maintenance. Our board promised the public a balanced budget, and they stood by that pledge.
We are not alone in these struggles. When the state decided to start prorating the already too small pot of money schools get each year, it caused districts from all parts of the state to take drastic measures to cope with the loss of funds.
Districts like mine took every step it could to be responsible and spend within its means despite not having an inkling of what could happen at the state level. Mercifully, talks finally began which tried to address the funding inequity and the overreliance on local property wealth in this state to fund schools. It’s sickening that it took this long, but it was a start.
This, of course, played out exactly as expected and in short order devolved into partisan bickering, pitting parts of the state against each other in a grotesque survival contest in which there would be massive winners and massive losers.
Then came SB1, which started to try to address the funding inequities that plague our state.
Which brings us to today. It is an absolute embarrassment what is going on in Illinois right now. This school funding situation is such a mess that I am putting out passionate calls to action for SB1 for my local. We are telling people to support a funding bill which does little to fix the fact that local property wealth is the primary indicator of the quality of education a student will get in Illinois. The choice isn’t a difficult one, though.
I won’t mince words: Districts across this state need SB1 right now.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from ideal. In fact, it feels like it’s trying to treat a sucking chest wound with some gauze and a roll of duct tape. Sure, it helps, but there’s a much larger issue that better be addressed in short order.
The most disturbing factor in the whole ordeal is that it’s our children who are being used as bargaining chips in the partisan bickering. I’ve heard the governor doing his media barnstorming tour trying to blame Chicago. This has been shown to be patently false, and again is pitting residents of Illinois against each other.
However, as I’ve written before, it’s become normal for politicians to spread outright lies and misinformation to further their own agendas. This is going to get worse before it gets better.
We indeed need to be fighting to get SB1 passed. Without passing an evidence-based funding model, schools will not receive funding from the state. I don’t need to point out what the repercussions would be for our students.
Call your state senator. Call your state representative — SB1 must pass. Then we can begin the work of addressing the mess that school funding is in Illinois.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments below. Also you can follow me on twitter: @paulgamboa.