SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Illinois superintendents warned of school closures and staff layoffs Tuesday as they implored state lawmakers to pass a budget to give them certainty for the fall when the new academic year begins.
The challenge facing superintendents is that the epic partisan gridlock that has left the state without a budget for 11 months is spilling over into education, with ideological differences over how to proceed with funding.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is asking lawmakers for $55 million more to fully fund the general state aid to schools instead of prorating it like it's been done the past seven years to balance the books. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, say that while more money is good, the state's complicated, 20-year-old school funding formula must be overhauled now so it's fairer to property-tax poor districts.
But superintendents from districts including Kankakee, Moline, and Streator expressed worry Tuesday that there's no agreement for next year yet. They say they'll have to deplete their reserves to open this fall and that some might not make it all year.
Their message came on the same day the Democrat-led Senate approved their proposed change to the funding formula on a 31-21 vote. The bill now goes to the House, where its prospects are unclear.
Jack Bambrick, the interim superintendent of Rockridge Community Unit School District #300 in Taylor Ridge, said they have reserves to get them through 134 days.
"That's not a full school year. We can open our doors next year," he said, but added, "I don't know how long we'll be able to stay open. That's not a threat."
John Pearson, the superintendent of East Alton-Wood River Community High School District 14, said the only way to balance their budget after years of cuts would be to lay off 40 percent of the staff.
The superintendents said they favored Rauner's idea of adding more funding to schools without a formula change because they prefer the certainty of having the money. Some of the Democratic state lawmakers who represent them agreed.
"Let's give these men and women here that run our schools that have the responsibility of educating our youth, let's give them some certainty right now moving forward," said Rep. Dan Beiser, a Democrat from Alton.
Education funding is the only portion of the budget for the current year that Rauner signed, meaning schools have largely been spared the consequences of the budget impasse.
Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill sponsoring the formula change, said his plan would ensure that school districts see no cuts over the next four years with a $400 million investment from the state.
His plan would gradually change districts' reliance on property taxes and take local wealth into account when distributing funds. Over time, the state would shift more of its financial support toward needier districts.
One of the major criticisms from Republicans opposing Manar's plan was the amount of additional aid Chicago Public Schools would receive — about $175 million more next year compared with last year. Republicans also cited several other grants for Chicago in the bill.
But Manar countered that with the current system, "Chicago is underfunded. Plain and simple."
Without his formula change, he said poorer districts would continue to suffer and "this system is going to continue to erode."
The total budget for schools is expected to be about $10 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
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