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DECATUR — Macon County school administrators are welcoming a financial boost this week as the Illinois comptroller began releasing the first installment of state money under the new "evidence-based" school funding formula.

"I think it causes us all to have optimism," said Superintendent John Ahlemeyer of the Maroa-Forsyth School District.

The Illinois State Board of Education sent vouchers last week to the comptroller's office, which on Tuesday began processing checks for $350 million to be distributed to the state's 850 school districts.  The money is part of the funding formula, passed by lawmakers last year, that prioritizes the poorest school districts.

Under the new formula, the Decatur School District will get $2.3 million more than it received in state aid last year.

At first glance, that looks like a lot of money, but in essence it is simply allowing severely underfunded districts such as Decatur to start catching up to the state's standards of adequate funding, administrators say. According to the state board of education, Decatur's annual spending per student is 39 percent short of what is considered adequate under the formula. Districts with high property values in places such as Lake County have routinely been able to spend above 100 percent of adequacy.

"The momentous accomplishment of (the new formula) is ... identifying that," said Todd Covault, chief operational officer for the Decatur School District. "I'm trying to be very cautious, that people don't walk away from this (and say) that we're flush with $2.3 million. The reality is that we (won't have) as great a deficit as we otherwise had."

The district adopted an operational budget for this school year that includes a $524,423 deficit, Covault said. By comparison, when he came to the district in 2011, there was a $9 million deficit. Covault said the district manages by consistently spending less than is budgeted.

"It's not unusual," he said. "What we try to do, over the course of the year, is try to reign in spending. We identify if we spend everything budgeted, we're spending a deficit. Hopefully at the end of the year we'll come out ahead." 

Since he was hired in 2011, Covault said the district has had to make significant cuts after years of declining revenue from the state and local property taxes.

Rather than kickstart a flurry of new programs and initiatives in the district, "the reality is this (new money) has significantly altered the need to have substantial budget reductions every year," Covault said.

By design, the money from the new school funding formula plays the same role for better-off districts. The ISBE's evidence-based model puts Maroa-Forsyth at 82 percent of what is considered adequate funding, and the district will receive an additional $32,000 from last year.

"Every extra dollar helps, obviously, but with the size of our budget, it's not a game changer," Ahlemeyer said.

Superintendents from Meridian, Mount Zion, Warrensburg-Latham and Sangamon Valley school districts did not respond to a request to discuss the new funding. 

Even wealthier districts have struggled since 2011 estimating much money they could expect to get from the state, their primary funding source after property taxes.

After federal stimulus money dried up in 2011 and tax receipts fell from the Great Recession that began in 2008, school districts waited on the General Assembly each year to decide on a less-than-full percentage of state aid, known as proration.

Coupled with the two years lawmakers couldn't enact a budget, March was the first time districts received a full, on-time payment with new dollars attached to it.

"So just the fact that we're supposed to get (state aid) in a timely way is huge," Ahlemeyer said.

Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza will continue making state payments once more in April and four times in May and June. There's nearly $50 million more due to the schools from the new funding formula which has not yet been distributed.

The formula is made up of four tiers to determine funding eligibility, incorporating detailed enrollment figures, district-specific student learning needs, available local resources and other data.

The new law, passed by lawmakers in the summer, endured a rocky path to implementation. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the first version of the legislation, calling it a bailout for Chicago Public Schools. He signed a new version of the bill in August that included a private school tax-credit scholarship program and more money for Chicago Public Schools.

After officials found some technical errors in the bill, legislators passed a new version in January. In response, Rauner issued an amendatory veto to include several private schools that were not eligible to participate in the tax-credit scholarship program.

Rauner signed the final version of the bill later in January, which kept the school funding formula intact and allowed non-eligible private schools to get a greater window to apply to participate in the tax-credit scholarship program.

tlisi@herald-review.com | (217) 421-6949

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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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