City Council discusses school funding reform

Ald. Michael Scott questions affect potential cuts may have on athletic programs in his ward

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Earlier this month, the Chicago City Council's Committee on Education and Child Development held a hearing on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) funding issues and the proposed Senate Bill 1 (SB1) — which, if passed, would change the way state aid to public schools is calculated.

During the July 10 hearing, Chicago Public Schools Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz and CPS Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro said that approving SB1 and changes in pension laws that would relieve the district's pension burdens would put the district on a sounder financial footing. Without those reforms, the district would continue making cuts, which would affect schools all across the board. Earlier this month, Ruiz announced roughly $60 million in cuts to be implemented this budget year, with more to come potentially.  

Meanwhile, State Senator Andy Manar (48th), the bill's chief sponsor, said that SB1 will help a large number of urban and rural districts throughout Illinois, and CPS just happened to be one of them. He and the other supporters of the bill argued that this would help the bill pass. However, other legislators that testified before the committee said that the bill still faces hurdles; even legislators that were willing to help CPS argued that the city should do more to improve the school district's financial situation.

SB1 calls for replacing most state educational grants with a single grant that is based on each school district's financial needs. The earlier version of the bill — Senate Bill 16 (SB16) — was introduced last year, but it ultimately stalled in the state senate. In addition to looking at general needs, the new version factors in area income and workforce costs, as well as the number of English language learner students and students with special needs. The adequacy grant would provide extra funding for rural districts that don't spend much money, but have trouble generating enough property taxes to meet their needs.

The Education Committee hearing began with Manar and Robin Steans, the Executive Director of Advance Illinois, a public education advocacy group, outlining their case for SB1. The two argued that the current state funding formulas are out of date and don't meet most districts' needs. For CPS in particular, it would replace the block grant, which they argued would be to the district's advantage. The block grant, they argued, makes a tempting political target, and adopting SB1 would leave CPS with the same amount of money without the political baggage.

"It isn't that Chicago doesn't need those dollars, it's that when it gets them this way, it's tough to defend," said Steans.

Manar said that, while CPS would gain an extra $140 million under the SB1 funding formula, it wouldn't actually increase the state's overall educational funding.

"This is not just simply the question of spending more — it's about spending the money we have better," he said.

Later during the hearing, Ruiz and Ostro laid out CPS' financial picture. Ruiz said that the district already cut as much as it could without making cuts that directly affected the classrooms. Under the current financial conditions, the district's $1.1 billion budget deficit is expected to continue growing.

Ostro explained that there are major reasons for the deficit, including the continued decline in state funding and pension obligations.

"If we don't make any changes, CPS will have to borrow money just to pay [staff] on time," she said.

Ostro said that CPS currently supports two potential proposals to change pension funding. The first proposal called for all state teachers' pension funds to be combined together. The second proposal called for the state to cover teachers currently active in CPS, require suburban districts to contribute to their pension plans and restore CPS' pension tax levy — which was blended into the district's general tax levy twenty years ago.

Ostro said that passing SB1 and making changes to pension contributions would significantly improve the district's financial outlook.

Although all aldermen on the committee questioned the general impact of the budget cuts, only Ald. Michael Scott (24th) questioned the impact on his ward specifically — something that he's said parents from his ward have been calling him about.

"My question is about elementary schools' sports program," he said. "If you remove stipends from coaches, how is the structure of elementary sports program is going to be maintained?"

When Ruiz replied that school principals had some discretion on how they could allocate funding, Scott explained that he was mostly worried that there won't be enough funding to keep the programs from closing.

"I know coaches, in some cases, are willing to volunteer, "he said. "[But] in order to play, you need to have insurance for every child. Will the insurance portion [of the funding] still remain?"

Ruiz replied that he didn't know, but that he can find out and get back to him.

"Please do," replied Scott. "I know that, especially in my ward, a lot of young individuals will be on the street if that after-school program is taken away."

Contact:
Email: igorst3@hotmail.com

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