Local school administrators are not enthusiastic about a proposal from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to transfer about $305 million in state grants that school districts receive for special education to unrestricted general state aid.
The proposal aims to help poorer school districts with relatively poor property tax funding bases. In Illinois, the vast majority of school funding comes from local property taxes while state aid is a relatively small percentage of local districts’ revenues.
Under a spreadsheet prepared by the ISBE, some area districts would gain revenue under the proposal while others would lose money. But local administrators say that the numbers are incomplete and that they do not support any change that would hurt any school district.
“This is a robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the degree to which Peter has been robbed has not yet been disclosed,” said David Sellers the interim director of finance and operations for Riverside Elementary School District 96.
District 96’s state aid would be reduced by nearly $116,000 under the proposal, according to the ISBR spreadsheet.
“My own view is that, in the short term, the school district could make adjustments, but in the longer term it will hinder our ability to make improvements or keep up with meeting student needs,” Sellers said.
The proposal, which was unanimously approved by the ISBE this month, must be approved by the state legislature to become law.
Under federal law, a school district cannot meaningfully reduce the amount it spends annually on special education services, so school districts would have to find the money to make up for lost special education dollars coming from the so-called categorical state grants.
Brookfield-LaGrange Park would be a winner under the proposal, with the state estimating an increase of $197,752 in general state aid under the new formula. But District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said he is not sure that is the net gain the district would receive once the reduced special educations grants are factored in.
“We are still ahead in this scenario by a little bit, but not significantly,” Kuzniewski said.
In any case, Kuzniewski is opposed to any shift in state funding that would leave some districts worse off even if his district benefits.
“If we have winners and losers it’s not a beneficial proposal,” Kuzniewski said. “What would be a beneficial proposal is for the state would find a way, instead of shifting money from one pot to another, is to add money to the existing pot and redistribute the additional money that they add to the pot using the same formula so there are no losers.”
Sellers agrees with Kuzniewski that no district should be made worse off and that the state should increase funding of education.
“Other states that have undertaken this kind of redistribution initiative have increased the total dollars of funding for education and not made it a zero sum game,” Sellers said.
The ISBE calculates that Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 would gain $192,717 under the proposal, while Lyons Township High School would lose $289,525.
The ISBE spreadsheet indicates Komarek School District 94 would lose $34,729 under the proposal while LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 and Lyons-Brookfield District 103 would be big winners, gaining $386,049 and $582,488 respectively under the proposal.
But Sellers says that the ISBE’s data is incomplete.
“This newest proposal has a gaping hole as far as a lack of information,” Sellers said. “School districts are being put in much more jeopardy of losing substantial percentages of their total funding from the state than is being yet clarified.”
State Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) said that while he is not familiar with the details of the proposal, he likes the general concept.
“I think that the way we fund education right now is so messed up that taking money out of these little silos and putting it more towards general state aid is a great idea in theory,” Zalewski said. “I don’t want to go too far out on a limb, but that initially sounds like something I could support.”
Zalewski said that he supports directing more state aid to poorer districts with lower property tax bases, but would want any change resulting in a reduction in state funding for districts.
“What this really calls for is a dedicated revenue stream for education,” Zalewski said. “We need to settle that question, and then we’ll go into how we protect school districts in my district.”
Kuzniewski doesn’t believe the proposed change will become law.
“I do not believe that it is likely to happen for the simple fact that nobody in the state really will value a solution that has winners and losers,” Kuzniewski said. “It’s just not good practice. I don’t think it is likely that it would pass.”