There was both good and bad news for Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 coming from Illinois General Assembly’s spring legislative session, which ended last week.
The good news is that a plan to shift the employer portion of the costs for teacher pensions from the state of Illinois to local school districts was not approved or even ultimately brought to a vote.
The bad news for RBHS is that the legislature did not authorize the bonding authority necessary to allow the state to pay District 208 an $8.9 million school construction grant the district applied for about nine years ago.
RBHS now ranks fifth of the list of school districts waiting to receive money from the Illinois Capital Development Board, but that money is still beyond the district’s grasp.
The state legislature did reauthorize the grants, but did not approve any funding mechanism to pay the grants.
“There was no school construction bond authorization this time,” said state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside), who has been spearheading an effort to get RBHS the money. “That’s probably the simplest way I can say it.”
With the state’s backlog of unpaid bills approaching $8 billion, the legislature didn’t authorize the debt certificates to fund the grants.
But Zalewski said he will keep fighting for the money.
“I’m going to keep working on it and try and get it done in the fall,” Zalewski said. “RB isn’t the only school that’s in this predicament. There’s a bunch and so it doesn’t make any sense for us to do roads and bridges and not go back for construction that they already did.”
District 208 officials have never counted on receiving the money, so the failure of the legislature to come through with the money will not affect the budget plans they have made.
“We’re preparing to go forward, worst case scenario, that we won’t see that money,” said District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis.
Zalewski said that he was surprised that the capital bill came over to the House without the funding for school construction grants.
“I was given green arrows all the way up until two days before the end of the session that the money was going to be in there,” Zalewski said. “It wasn’t until [May 31] that I got some feelers that it wasn’t going to be in there, and that was what was disappointing.”
An effort led by House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) and, originally, by Gov. Pat Quinn to shift teacher pension costs to local school districts went nowhere when faced with opposition from many suburban and downstate legislators, who feared that it would eventually result in substantial increases in local property taxes.
In the last days of the legislative session, Quinn abandoned the pension cost shift proposal and tried to round up enough Democratic votes on a pension reform bill without it. He was not successful when Madigan refused to support a major reform bill without the pension cost shift provision.The state legislature may reconvene this summer in a special session to have another go at pension reform.