Lawmakers have been working on a new school funding model for the past few years, but some school districts have gotten impatient and decided to take the issue to court. So far, 16 school boards have voted to join the lawsuit, which will be filed by Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan.
Last week, I interviewed two of the superintendents involved in the lawsuit.
Dan Cox is superintendent of Staunton Unit 6, a town of about 5,000 just a few miles south of Litchfield. Brad Skertich is superintendent of Southwestern Community Unit School District 9, a consolidated district made up of Shipman, Brighton, Piasa, Medora, Fidelity and parts of Royal Lakes — tiny rural towns that are home to farmers and commuters willing to make regular trips to Springfield or St. Louis.
School boards in both districts have voted to chip in $1,000 to join at least 14 others in Geoghegan’s lawsuit against the State of Illinois, seeking an adequate and equitable school funding formula.
“We’re at our breaking point,” Skertich says, “and we’re being held to a standard that students have to meet, and we’re being compared to students throughout the state, and we’re not getting the funding to meet the standards that are there. We’ve been backed into a corner and we have no other path, because the state’s not meeting their obligation.”
The standards he’s referring to are the Illinois Learning Standards — a detailed set of guidelines adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education and monitored through the use of standardized tests.
“This is directly from the state board’s website: ‘Illinois students cannot be held accountable for achieving these standards if they do not have adequate and sufficient opportunities for doing so.’ But nevertheless, students in our district are being held accountable for learning standards that aren’t being funded adequately or equitably,” Cox says.
To understand their complaint, you need to know how school funding works in Illinois.
Every school is supposed to have at least $6,119 per student per year. That’s a number the legislature came up with decades ago and it’s never changed. Each district raises as much as it can through local property taxes, and some with high property values raise well over $6,119 — up to two or three times that amount. In fact, at least one elementary district in a Chicago suburb spends more than $30,000 per child each year. But if a district can’t raise the $6,119, the state is obliged to fill in the gap with General State Aid, or GSA. Small districts like Staunton and Southwestern, with mainly farmland and houses, simply cannot raise $6,119 per kid using property taxes, so they’re pretty dependent on that GSA.
The problem is: The state has been prorating, or reducing, GSA for years, cutting it by as much as 11 percent.
“To serve as an example, we have district in our area that has a tax rate of $13 and 50-some cents. And then you look at Staunton and we’re $3.22 and that’s a huge disparity, and both districts are struggling to meet the standards and properly fund their students,” Cox says. “So you can take one end of the spectrum to the other and it’s just not working in the current model.”
That district with the $13.53 tax rate is Cahokia Unit School District 187, which has also joined the lawsuit.
Gov. Bruce Rauner takes a lot of pride in the fact that he has ended the practice of prorating general state aid. But there’s another big bucket of state dollars being held back. It’s called mandated categoricals — MCATs for short — and those dollars are supposed to reimburse districts for special education, transportation, and other services. The state has been prorating MCATs for decades, by as much as 30 percent. With the budget impasse, MCAT reimbursements lag months behind schedule if they show up at all.
“Essentially, they’ve taken a political buzzword that’s calmed the public — ‘We’re fully-funding GSA’ — and they’re shortfalling mandated categoricals because a lot of people don’t understand what that is,” Skertich says.
“And they’ve gotten behind on MCATs in the past as well, where they take extra time to pay them back,” Cox says. “They pay them back in the following fiscal year.”
“Historically we would receive a payment in July from the previous fiscal year,” Skertich says. “We did not get a payment until November or December, and that was to complete the previous fiscal year’s mandated categorical payments. At this point in time, we’ve received one full round of mandated categorical payments and those all came from FY 16. Fiscal year 17, we have received nothing except national school lunch, driver's ed, and about $36,000 in pre-kindergarten money, roughly a third of the grant.”
When I asked them how they do the books, the two superintendents just looked at each other in complete silence.
“I mean, when you build a budget, that’s the nonsense of it all,” Cox says. “We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, and we may or may not get it. But we’re not allowed to go into debt. We have to finish the year with a balanced budget, but we have no idea what that’s going to be. So we really put together in the summer of each year our best educated guess of how the year is going to go. And then when it doesn’t go that way, you end up using your fund balances to pay the bills.”
“We’ve cut programs, we’ve cut staff, we have larger class sizes, less administrators, less social services,” Skertich says. “We are dependent on parent fundraising to the extent that is unfathomable, and that’s where we’re at. We’ve hit rock bottom. And we’ve made so many changes to try and survive. And the changes we’ve made, we’ve tried to have minimal impact on kids, but we did have some, because we have less programs and larger class sizes, and less social services. But if we continue to make cuts, we’re jeopardizing the bare necessity of why we’re there — the quality of education we give our kids.”
So what kind of class sizes are teachers dealing with in Staunton and Southwestern schools?
“We have elementary classrooms with as many as 29 students per class,” Cox says. “We have junior high classrooms that are over 30 students per class.”
“We range from 25 to 33 in grades kindergarten through 8th grade,” Skertich says.
Class size is emphasized in the Evidence Based Model, which is the foundation of a new funding model that has gained bipartisan support in the Illinois statehouse. The Evidence Based Model pegs a good elementary class size at 15.
“Yes, in kindergarten through 3rd grade, it’s 15, and that would be a phenomenal number to hit,” Skertich says. “We averaged around 18 prior to the financial crisis that’s hit, and since that point in time, we’ve worked our way up from 22 to as high as 27 in kindergarten through 5th grade. Currently we have 25 in a kindergarten class, with one teacher. And then we have an at-risk math aide that we just added to help assist those teachers. It’s not acceptable.”
It’s part of the reason they were able to persuade their communities to support joining the lawsuit, which they expect to be filed within the next few weeks.
“Whenever our board approved the resolution, I first met with our faculty as a whole,” Cox says. “I then sent an editorial to our local newspaper, and sent an email out to all of our parents. I did get some questions back from some people, and they were good, thoughtful questions and I’m glad they asked. But all in all, people that responded to me, they’re fed up with it and they’ve had enough as well, and are wishing us the best with words of encouragement.”
“And the same in Southwestern,” Skertich says. “The board approved it unanimously, and the community members and staff members that I’ve spoken with have been supportive, because people understand that it’s time for change.”
Two days after this interview, State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), whose school district is also involved in the lawsuit, filed his fourth bill attempting to change the school funding formula. But the two superintendents say the lawsuit will go on.
“I applaud Sen. Manar’s efforts,” Skertich said in a message. “However, the bill has only been filed and not passed either chamber or signed by the governor. In addition, a change in the formula will require an increase in funding to have a positive impact on districts riddled by proration.”
Attorney Geoghegan declined to speak with us, saying he prefers to let clients speak for themselves.