Brady says pay freeze could cover school funding cuts

Monday, September 13, 2010

If Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady is successful with his plan to cut a dime out of every dollar to close Illinois’ budget deficit, how will schools deal with reduced funding and not make harmful cuts or raise property taxes?

Brady’s suggestion: Freeze teacher pay.

“The cuts that we’ve talked — a dime in every dollar — would reduce overall education funding by 2 to 3 percent,” Brady said last week at a campaign appearance at a Springfield business. “Local school districts could absorb that by maybe not offering the pay raises that they’ve put in place.

“Let’s face it, the private sector has gone without a pay raise — in many cases, pay cuts — over the last four years. School districts can decide we’re going to buckle up in these difficult economic times and we’re going to live within our means as well, without increasing property taxes, without increasing class sizes and without letting teachers go.”

The Springfield School District and the Springfield Education Association have agreed to a one-year base wage freeze, although teachers will continue to receive step increases for seniority and improving their education.

Passing the buck?

Bill Looby, president of the Springfield School Board, said he does not view Brady’s suggestion as a solution.

“It just seems like passing the buck to a certain extent,” said Looby, who emphasized he was speaking for himself and not the entire board. “It sort of alleviates his responsibility in terms of saying, ‘I’m going to cut it, and you all figure it out.’ The teachers have done their part, as far as I’m concerned, in our school district to try to alleviate the budget issues that we’re facing. I think most school districts are weighing those types of things in their negotiations.”

Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, which has endorsed Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, said Brady’s idea would “trample all over collective bargaining agreements across the state.”

“The fact of the matter is that there are places in this state where school funding has been inadequate for a long time,” Swanson said. “There are some districts where our members have agreed to sacrifices. That is not something that should be imposed from the top down by a candidate … who’s looking for a way to make the facts fit his terrible proposal.”

Brady spokeswoman Patty Schuh said the Bloomington state senator was simply offering a potential solution and not saying that he would seek to impose a statewide teacher pay freeze.

“That was an option,” Schuh said. “If taxpayers are not willing to give you more money, than you’ve got to live with what you have. He’s a local-control guy. If a school district has ‘X’ to work with, they have to decide how much toilet paper to buy, they have to decide how many teachers’ aides to hire … and they have to decide whether to ask their teachers whether to forgo a pay raise.”

Income tax hike

Quinn has modified his own education-funding proposal to raise the income tax by a third, from 3 percent to 4 percent, for schools. Such a tax increase would raise roughly $3 billion.

Quinn said recently that he would couple the income tax increase with some sort of property tax relief, which would reduce the amount of money available to schools.

Swanson called Quinn’s proposed tax swap “a bit surprising,” but added that he thought Quinn was looking for ways to make school funding fairer. He conceded that too much property tax relief would negate the revenue raised by an income tax increase.

“Do we need to look at some means ... to make sure we’re not over-reliant on property taxes? Yes,” Swanson said.
In New Jersey

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady’s approach is similar to one adopted by New Jersey’s GOP governor, Chris Christie.

Christie, elected in 2009 and considered a rising Republican star, cut education by $820 million, or roughly 10 percent, in his first budget, which was approved by a Democratic legislature.

To avoid major cuts in the classrooms as a result of less state aid, Christie has campaigned for school districts to freeze teacher pay and make them contribute at least 1.5 percent of their salaries to health benefits.

In New Jersey, voters approve or disapprove school district budgets at the polls. Earlier this year, a record 58 percent of school district budgets were voted down after Christie urged their defeat if teachers had not agreed to the concessions.

Teachers in only 33 of New Jersey’s 600 school districts agreed to a pay freeze.

But Christie’s campaign and the school-budget votes haven’t stopped layoffs and increased class sizes. Eighty-five percent of the state’s schools reported that they expected to have fewer teachers this year, according to The Star Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Brady spokeswoman Patty Schuh said Brady didn’t get the idea for a teacher pay freeze from Christie, noting that personnel costs are every school district’s biggest expense. Schuh did say Brady had consulted Christie and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, another Republican, on policy ideas.

“Governor Christie will be helping us,” Schuh said.
Brady’s math

How would the state cut 10 percent of its education budget, but there would be a reduction of only 2 percent or 3 percent in education spending as a whole?

Funding for public education in Illinois comes from state and local taxes. Roughly $26 billion is spent on education in Illinois, with $7.8 billion coming from the state, Schuh said. A 10 percent cut equals $780 million or 3 percent of $26 billion.

The Brady campaign has no estimate on how the cuts would affect individual school districts.