At their joint meeting on Jan. 11, the District 65 and 202 School Boards discussed adopting an “Education First Resolution” proposed by the Evanston/Skokie District 65/202 Joint Legislative Task Force – a PTA Council committee of school community leaders, chaired by Bob Heuer. Gretchen Livingston and Kim Weaver, members of the District 202 and 65 School Boards respectively, served on the Committee.

Bill Stafford, chief financial officer of District 202 who provided staff support to the Task Force, set the stage for the proposed resolution. “These are basically pretty dire economic times. …Only California has a lower bond rating than Illinois among the 50 states and that’s the situation we find ourselves in,” he said.

A background memo prepared by the Task Force says, “The state’s current shortfall for fiscal year 2011 is estimated at over $12 billion (about 40 percent of the state’s operating budget).”

To address the looming budget deficits, staff for the Illinois State Board of Education, ISBE, prepared three education budget scenarios for discussion: a $922 million cut, which would eliminate alternate and flat grants; flat funding; and a $2.5 billion increase.

Ms. Livingston said the Task Force spent the better part of last year studying education funding and policy issues, and “all of this was brought to a head by the fact that money is extraordinarily tight, and as Bill [Stafford] made that abundantly clear, some of the proposals on the table now are really very, very appalling and carry really dire consequences for our District.

“The real purpose of the Task Force is to influence and carry our voice to Springfield, and in appropriate cases, even to Washington D.C., so that we can have a say, have a voice, and play a role in shaping legislation that affects all of our Districts.”

Potential Cuts in State Funding

One of the proposed resolutions is that School Districts 65 and 202 oppose the ISBE scenario that calls for a reduction of $922 million in state funding for education and that calls for the elimination of alternate and flat grants.

Mr. Stafford said if that scenario were adopted, “it would result in the loss of the entire general state aid funding which amounts to $1.5 million for District 202 and $3.5 million for 65.”

Ms. Weaver said, “We do not want to lose $3.5 million in our District and $1.5 million in 202. That’s the big elephant staring right at us. It’s really critical we send a message we can’t lose that.”

On Jan. 14, ISBE decided it would not recommend the $922 million cut in education spending, but would recommend that the legislature maintain “level funding.” In a prepared statement, ISBE recognized, though, that “a cut to education is a very real possibility for 2011.”

Mr. Stafford told the RoundTable that potential cuts in education funding were still in play until the State legislature passed a budget in June. He said the resolution opposing the cuts was still “very valuable.”

Funding Reform

Mr. Heuer told the RoundTable the proposed resolution also attempts to protect the local funding of schools through property taxes, while addressing inequities in the property tax system by urging the State to provide supplemental grants to schools with low-income students.

One proposed measure would modify the property tax cap formula, which generally limits the amount by which a school district may increase property taxes to the lesser of the increase in the Consumer Price Index, CPI, or 5 percent. Property taxes account for about 80 percent of the District’s operating revenues.

The resolution urges that the Employment Cost Index, ECI, be used instead of the CPI as one measure in the tax-cap formula. The ECI measures changes in the total compensation paid for labor. Mr. Stafford said the ECI, which has been increasing at a higher rate than the CPI, is more representative of the type of expenses that school districts face.

Mr. Stafford told the RoundTable that this change would be particularly important if the State cut its funding of education, because it would give school districts a way to make up for cuts in state grants by increasing revenues through property taxes.

Second, the proposed measure urges that the state not adopt unfunded mandates without a fiscal impact statement that explains the financial burden that would be imposed on school districts.

A third proposal is that the State “provide supplemental funding for low-income students.” The intent of this proposal is to address the disparity in state funding per pupil, while preserving local revenues.

The background memo said that some school districts in the state spend less than $5,000 per student, while others spend more than $20,000. Ms. Livingston said the State may be forced to address this disparity as a result of a Cook County lawsuit challenging the Illinois school funding system on the basis it has a discriminatory impact.

District 202 School Board member Martha Burns posed a question that spawned a lengthy discussion: “Are we saying we want the whole state to be able to pay $18,000 per student? Are we saying we just want to be sure that we are able to pay $18,000 per pupil per year to go to school in Evanston and the North Shore?”

Ms. Livingston responded, “There is no articulation of some sort of base-level of funding in this resolution.” She added, “The point of this resolution is to protect our local revenues. … The intent is to recognize we have a fairly large low-income population and to protect our ability to pay for the education of those students along with all of our other students. And that if a legislative fix comes into play, we want to be at the table. …”

Ms. Weaver said, “We don’t fund Illinois school system equitably. We do need to be careful because while it isn’t funded equitably, if we don’t see more money going into this system – which is 49 out of 50 states – where are they going to get that money? They’re going to take it from us. We don’t want them to take it from us. That’s what this resolution is doing specifically. Protecting our local revenues.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “I absolutely recognize we are very fortunate that we are able to spend $18,000 per pupil.” He added, though, that the cost of living on Chicago’s North Shore does not compare with that of most of the State. He said most of the funding is spent paying competitive salaries for teachers, many of whom cannot afford to live in Evanston.

“While it’s an issue, I don’t think we’re trying to address it in [the resolution],” Dr. Witherspoon said. “I think we’re saying we have commitments to personnel, to employees, teachers and trying to stay competitive, and if the state were to remove some of the funding they’re threatening to remove, it would mean massive, massive cutbacks and it would drastically diminish what we can offer educationally to students in these districts.”

District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “I think the thing we’re trying to be careful of, is 15-20 years ago, Texas went through this and they had something called the Robin Hood plan. The thing we don’t want is for money shifted from districts like Evanston to other districts, and if this resolution will send this message, then I think it’s certainly worthwhile to sign onto.”

Education Reforms

Mr. Heuer told the RoundTable the Task Force felt education policy should be addressed together with funding reforms. Another resolution proposed by the Task Force is that the State implement the education reforms contained in the U. S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative, including that the State develop new K-12 standards and assessments.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, the State and the federal governments are moving toward this. “It’s important for the State to come up with, if not a K-12, a 3-12, accountability system that’s aligned in scales across its grade levels.”

District 202 Board member Debbie Graham said, “That’s really an important component of this and it addresses a systematic issue that certainly affects us here in Evanston and that affects the schools throughout the State.” District 65 Board member Tracy Quattrocki echoed these comments.

The District 202 Board approved the Education First Resolution on Jan. 11. Members of the District 65 Board expressed support for the resolution, and are expected to vote at the next meeting.