Monday, August 29, 2016

Funding hike brings budget flexibility

Jennifer Gill, superintendent,
Springfield School District 186
The state budget and education spending dominated Illinois news coverage for the first half of 2016. Among the issues: proposals to change the way tax dollars are distributed to schools; recommended increases in school funding that varied from $100 million to nearly $1 billion; and the doomsday prospect of schools not opening on time because a budget was not finalized. All came and went, with more money funneled to schools but little change in the way those funds are dispersed.

Illinois school districts will see more than $360 million in new state funding during fiscal year 2017. The per-pupil foundation level will be fully funded at $6,119 per student, an additional $250 million sent via “equity” grants to schools with the highest poverty ranks, and $75 million more dedicated to early childhood education. Mandated categorical grants remain at FY 2016 amounts and Chicago Public Schools receive $215 million toward the normal cost of their teacher’s pensions, contingent upon legislators approving some kind of pension reform by the first of the year.

The resulting prospects are positive for districts around the state. For the first time in nearly seven years, schools will receive the statutorily set foundation level, leaving them additional flexibility to spend on other critical needs.
Jay Strang, chief business official,
Indian Prairie School District 204

Jay Strang, the chief school business official of Indian Prairie School District 204 (Naperville), said he is pleased with the education spending approved by the state.  “It is higher than the pro-rated amounts we have received in the past. We had originally projected a 92 percent proration, but the full funding amounts to an additional $3 million,” Strang said.

District 204 will spend around $321 million next year, with nearly $47 million, or 15 percent, coming from the state, and $265 million, or 83 percent, from local property taxes. The federal government will provide the remainder: roughly $9 million, or a little less than 3 percent.

While encouraged by the increase in funding, Strang said the state’s delay in approving a spending plan presented other challenges. 

“When revenue projections are that late you can’t plan for projects. We then have to take money out of our capital outlay and that delays those projects,” Strang indicated.  “We were working to install air conditioners in our elementary classrooms.  That is a summer project that has to be pushed back to the fall and possibly to next year because we missed the prime bidding season in the spring.”

Springfield School District 186 plans to spend a little over $190 million for the current school year. The district will have a surplus of $2.6 million in its education fund. Technology upgrades for teachers and students, as well as the addition of new positions, such as a psychologist, are on the agenda for this year.

District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill also expressed her optimism regarding the fully funded general state aid formula. "It allowed us to pass a balanced budget and have a small surplus that we can utilize to support teaching and learning in our district,” Gill acknowledged. “While it will take us more than one year to replenish things we have lost over the past few years with several rounds of budget cuts, this year we will feel less pressure when student needs arise.”

The fiscal 2017 education budget is promising for districts throughout the state; however, the unknowns for the coming year are certainly on the minds of school officials.

“As lawmakers consider school funding formulas, it is important for them to remember the needs of school districts like ours,” said Gill. “We also hope that transportation reimbursement will be considered in new funding formula models, since we are currently at 70 percent proration. This directly affects our overall operating budget and is essential for students getting to school safely each and every day.”

When asked what he would like to see from the state before the start of next school year, Strang said, “A two-year state budget would be nice. I would like to see them work toward the Vision 20/20 Evidence-Based Funding model, but that will require additional revenue from the state.”

A full list of all Illinois school districts general state aid budget allocations is available at the Illinois State Board of Education website.