St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Illinois' budget uncertainty leaves schools in limbo

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - When Gov. Pat Quinn announced last week that Illinois schools aren't getting cut as deeply as feared in his new budget, the message was clear.
"We don't want school districts lopping off teachers," said Quinn, who also pledged that the schools will get the more than $1 billion owed to them in state back payments by year's end.

But the message now coming back from the schools is equally clear: They don't believe him.

"We have no reason to believe (the state) is going to be able to live up to the promises in that budget book," said Dave Comerford of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. He and others say Quinn's appeal to roll back some 17,000 teacher layoffs is too little, too late. "The districts tell us ... most of the layoffs will stand."

That's the case in Edwardsville, where 25 teachers have been laid off because of shortfalls in state funding — including $6 million in promised state money that still hasn't arrived for the now-finished 2009-10 school year.

Edwardsville Superintendent Ed Hightower said that while the district had already planned to call back "five or six" of those teachers, Quinn's announcement Thursday doesn't raise that number. "How are we going to bring them back when we're not sure what the budget will be?"

Quinn announced $1.4 billion in current or planned budget cuts across state government, aimed at getting the deficit-plagued state through the fiscal year that started Thursday. Among the announced cuts was $241 million off last year's funding level for primary and secondary education.

In the crisis atmosphere of Illinois government, that number was actually good news for the schools, because Quinn earlier had warned he might reduce their funding by more than $1 billion.

On Thursday, Quinn vowed to preserve what most educators consider the most important funding — the state's $6,119-per-pupil "foundation level" base payment to each district — keeping it at the same level as last year. Most of the money cut from education will come from school transportation funds, reading improvement grants and other areas.

"Making sure that education is protected ... animated me throughout this budget analysis," Quinn said Thursday.

The educational community has breathed a collective sigh of relief that the foundation level wasn't cut, and that the overall budget is higher than predicted. However, school superintendents say the biggest concern now isn't about the amount the state says it will pay in the coming year — but what it actually does pay.

That's because Illinois schools statewide are owed more than $1 billion from the state for the last school year. That money was promised by Springfield, and subsequently budgeted by the schools, and then simply didn't show up because the state didn't have it.

Quinn vowed Thursday that the back payments the state owes to schools, hospitals, state vendors and others — about $6 billion in all — will be paid by the end of December.

But even if that's true, some say, it won't help the schools resume normal operations if next year's state payments are held up the way this year's payments were.

"We're down $2.5 million," said Superintendent Todd Koehl of the O'Fallon elementary school district, referring to the money the district is owed by the state for the last school year. "What is the potential they are going to pay up that $2.5 million for this year (in December), but not pay it for next year?"

'Very frustrating'

Koehl said what schools need most is for the state to tell them what money they will be getting, "and stick with it. Then we could plan. ... It's very frustrating."

Part of the problem is that schools have to budget well in advance of the start of each school year, while the state's budget picture sometimes turns on a dime, based on politics.

For example, Quinn warned in March that he might be forced to cut more than $1 billion from schools unless the Legislature agreed to raise the state's 3 percent income tax to 4 percent. The warning appeared designed to pressure lawmakers to pass the tax increase.

The lawmakers refused. So Thursday's announcement by Quinn of a far smaller-than-advertised cut to schools was, from a political standpoint, the loss of a bluff — one that shifted the budget figure for schools, from draconian to livable, in the amount of time it took to conduct a news conference.

"School districts can't budget that way," said Comerford of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Districts generally have to inform teachers of impending layoffs in early spring before the next school year. "When you hire a teacher, you have to keep that teacher for the whole year."

As a result, schools often lay off more teachers than they might have to, because they can bring them back if it turns out the money is there. But they're hesitant to bring them back until they're sure that the money is actually going to arrive.

'No big infusion'

The fact that Quinn hasn't been able to persuade lawmakers to raise the state's income tax may worsen that uncertainty. Without it, it's unclear where the money will come from to sustain even the numbers Quinn put out last week, let alone restore school funding to previous levels.

"The schools see what the rest of us see: There's no big infusion of money coming into the state" to solve the problem any time soon, said Comerford.

Quinn last week hinted at what he may view as the light at the end of the tunnel: the November election. The coming campaign virtually paralyzed the Legislature this year in dealing with the budget crisis.

Lawmakers were unwilling to approve any of the tough choices — higher taxes, drastic cuts or borrowing — and instead turned the whole thing over to Quinn and left town for the summer.

Quinn has made it clear he plans to continue pushing for the tax hike, which he calls "a surcharge for education."

"After the election, I think some of them may be more willing to take a look at that issue," he said last week.