State Senator Daniel Biss delivers grim news about the state budget in Springfield on April 14. RoundTable photo

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For about 50 people, Evanston Lobby Day in Springfield, April 14, began early in the morning when they boarded a bus at Ryan Field for a four-hour trip to the state capital to meet with legislators. Others traveling by private car met them for lunch, and the delegation of about 60 settled for the afternoon in the office of Secretary of State Jesse White.

In smaller groups and together as the Evanston lobby, City and civic leaders and representatives of school districts met with State Senators Daniel Biss and Heather Steans, Representatives Barbara Flynn Currie, Don Harmon and Dan Kotowski; with Wayne Rosenthal, the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Ryan McCreery, the deputy director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Governor Bruce Rauner.

Topics of discussion included Senate Bill 1 and other education funding, the future of IDNR’s Coastal Management Program and the governor’s “turnaround” agenda, which many have termed “anti-union.”

In a lengthy discussion on the current and proposed budgets, Sen. Biss showed little optimism. “I would urge extreme caution [in planning] for 2016. For local government, it won’t be as bad. With education, it’s much less clear. I don’t want to give the impression of safety.”

$3.75 Million Loss for the City

As it stands now, the City could lose $3.75 million because of the governor’s proposed 50% cut in the Local Government Distributive Fund (LGDF) that was established in 1969 when the State implemented an income tax. This was in lieu of municipalities having any income tax – LGDF supports general fund operating expenses, e.g. police, fire, health, and public works.

Mayor Tisdahl said she talked to Gov. Rauner “about things we agree on, such as workmen’s compensation. I told him we had dissolved the township, saving $400,000 and providing better services. I tried to stress things that we agree on, such as reducing the number of local government entities.”

The governor presented Mayor Tisdahl with his 30-page “turnaround agenda,” which he plans to ask every municipality to adopt and follow. Among the proposals is a reduction in the power of unions.

“I told the governor that collective bargaining is not the problem. The problem is that the State Legislature decides what goes into the police and fire pensions, but does not pay for them. If municipalities could negotiate with the unions, all would be well. I promised to put his turn- around agenda on the agenda at a City Council meeting. I made no promises about the results of the discussion,” Mayor Tisdahl told the RoundTable.

Mayor Tisdahl said she will put the item on a Council agenda because “he’s our duly elected governor. I believe in democracy.”

School Districts May Lose $9 Million

Mayor Tisdahl said the two School District Superintendents – Dr. Paul Goren of District 65 and Dr. Eric Witherspoon of District 202 – were with her when she spoke with the governor. “We talked about Senate Bill 1. The governor opposes SB1. …  He thinks that more money should be put into schools that lack sufficient funding – and I agree with that,” she said.

Senate Bill 1, a slightly changed version of last year’s Senate Bill 16, threatens School District 65 with a loss of $6.6 million per year and School District 202 with a loss of $2.2 million per year, the losses phased in over three years.

The two School Districts were represented by Dr. Goren, Dr. Witherspoon District 65 Board members Tracy Quattrocki, president; Candance Chow and Suni Kartha; District 202 Board members Gretchen Livingston, president, Bill Geiger and Pat Savage-Williams. The chief financial officers of each district, Mary Brown of District 65 and Bill Stafford of District 202, also attended the lobby day. The District 202 delegation distributed to the governor and the legislators copies of the RoundTable’s April 9 editorial, which explained six key faults of SB1.

“We showed the RoundTable editorial to everyone and pointed out that there were six key points that point out its unfairness,” Ms. Livingston told the RoundTable. It was not our priority to see our local legislators, because we have access to them here,” she added.

“The big take-away on SB 1 is that the formula continues to put too much weight on a District’s [theoretical] wealth. If we’re serious about a student-based system of education, then that has to get fixed.  I think that point was generally meeting with a receptive audience.”

Ms. Livingston also said the School District representatives “found a lot of sympathy with our concerns and SB1” in their meeting with Representative Don Harmon of Oak Park. “I thought that was very useful and very productive,” said Ms. Livingston. A small-group meeting with Sen. Dan Kotowksi of Park Ridge was “met with some sympathy,” she added.

“I think it’s important that our School District, along with other school districts, needs to take a strong stand in opposition of this bill,” Ms. Livingston said.

“Gov. Rauner has made the statement that he wants to give more money to education. I can tell you there is not more money going to school districts.” She said, for example, he is proposing a 2% drop in General State Aid (GSA) for next year. And that amount represents the gradual eroding of GSA to many school districts.

 “Schools are not the winners here. It’s been a slow, steady suck out of our budget,” Ms. Livingston said.

“Gov. Rauner told us he has not taken an official position on SB1 and did have some issues with it. He did say it does not make sense to take money from districts to give it to other districts. … If he has doubts about SB1, that’s a good thing for school districts,” Ms. Livingston said. She added, “We told the governor, ‘We’d be happy to read your 25-30-page turnaround plan, but you have to read the two-page Evanston RoundTable editorial.’”

Ms. Quattrocki said, “We did get the sense that movement on SB1 might have slowed down, but this does not mean we will let up on our efforts to oppose the bill. … The proposed cuts under SB1 would be devastating to both Districts.  And while the legislators were receptive to our concerns, the general mood around school financing was rather bleak.”

Ms. Quattrocki also said the small meetings “gave us the opportunity to spell out for key legislators and the governor how the new funding formula in SB1 hurts some of the most vulnerable students in districts like Evanston.  We emphasized that in spite of Evanston’s relative wealth, the new formula does not take into consideration the high degree of need in our District because of the depth of poverty, our homeless population, our English-language learners and special needs students, and the constraints put on us by tax caps.”

Mayor Tisdahl also said she feels the annual trip to Springfield is important, so Evanston residents can connect not just with legislators who represent Evanston but with others as well.

 “I think it’s very important for Evanstonians to connect with our legislators in Springfield, and I’m grateful to the community members who made the trip on April 14. It’s up to us to put a face to what happens with their decisions,” the Mayor said.