Local school superintendents are breathing sighs of relief now that a new formula for state aid to education has been signed into law. 

The new law means that the state of Illinois will now start sending to school districts its twice-monthly installments of state aid, which had been held up in August, as the state legislature and Governor Bruce Rauner negotiated the details of the funding formula.

“I’m excited to see that the legislation has been resolved,” said Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis. 

The new law, which includes an additional $350 million in state aid to K-12 education, includes a new formula which is designed to direct more state aid to poorer school districts. However, the bill guarantees that no school district will receive less state aid than it received last year.

The bill that passed the General Assembly was a compromise that gave Democrats almost all of what they wanted, including significantly increased state aid to Chicago Public Schools.

Republicans, meanwhile, were able to include a provision that allows a total $75 million in state income tax credits for donations to a scholarship fund benefitting students at private schools. 

The new law also allows for voters in well-funded school districts, like Riverside Elementary District 96 and Lyons Township High School District 204, to petition for a referendum to lower property taxes. 

“We had to get something done,” said state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) who voted for the new law after the House was unable to override Rauner’s veto of a previous bill the legislature passed. 

“We needed a negotiated agreement with the Republicans,” Zalewski said. “From the way we were briefed on it, we got literally everything we wanted out of [the prior bill] and the Republicans had this request.”

The new funding formula is based on more than two dozen factors – enrollment, percentage of low-income students, percentage of English language learners, location and many more – developed by a commission formed four years ago.

The formula determines how adequately a particular school district is funded. In districts where current funding exceeds 110 percent of adequacy, 10 percent of district voters can sign a petition to force a referendum to lower property taxes. 

If a majority of voters agree taxes could be lowered to no less than 110 percent of adequacy.

Among area school districts it appears that only Riverside District 96 and Lyons Township High School District 204 would be eligible for such a referendum, if enough voters wish to have one. 

A draft report issued to school superintendents and obtained by the Landmark indicates that District 204 is currently funded at 120 percent of adequacy, while District 96 is funded at 134 percent of adequacy.

District 204 Superintendent Tim Kilrea and District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye both said that they are waiting for further information about the details of the new law.

“We haven’t done our final calculations on that adequacy target to know that would for sure to be the case, but that is something we are keeping an eye on certainly,” Ryan-Toye said.

Zalewski, who is the father of two District 96 students, says that he doubts that a majority of District 96 voters would vote to lower taxes for District 96. 

“I tend to think the parents and individuals in [District] 96 enjoy the fact that they have the financial flexibility to do some of the things that they want to do, so I’m wondering if anyone will take advantage of that provision,” Zalewski said.

The bill also allows schools to reduce physical education classes to just three times a week from the current daily requirement and to outsource driver’s education instruction.

Skinkis said that he has no current plans to propose to do either of those two things.

“At this point in time, I have no recommendation for the board to look at drivers’ education or physical education,” Skinkis said. “I’ll need some time to study alternatives for the district and see if that’s even feasible.”

Most Democrats did not want to vote for tax credits for donations to fund scholarships at private high schools, but said the provision was a necessary concession to end the stalemate in Springfield.

“This was a compromise,” said Zalewski, who himself attended Catholic schools through high school. “As for the program itself, it’s very distasteful for those of us who want to see as much money flow to the public schools as possible.”

Zalewski said that the scholarship provision is slated to be phased out after five years, and doubted the scholarship program would result in many more public school students attending private schools. 

“It’s not as if there’s going to be a deluge of these kids going to private or parochial schools as a result of this,” Zalewski said. “In the spirit of compromise, this was something that could be supported.”