Education Desk: Footnote To 'Fully-Funded'

Dec 22, 2016

Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

In the ongoing budget grudge match between Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratically-controlled legislature, one bright spot is that public schools have been spared. Rauner, in fact, has boasted that under his administration, general state aid for schools has been fully funded for the first time in years. But there’s a caveat to that claim.

School districts in prosperous areas can raise most of their budgets from property taxes, but districts in low-income or rural areas often have to rely on General State Aid to fill out their budgets. General State Aid is the amount allocated to school districts to bridge the gap between what they can raise via property taxes and the cost of a basic education. For some districts, that’s like a little footbridge; for others, it’s more like the Golden Gate. Lawmakers have gotten into the habit of “pro-rating” state aid, effectively lopping off a certain percentage of each district’s bridge.

Chop off 10 percent of a footbridge, and the district can still jump the gap. Chop of 10 percent of a Golden-Gate-size bridge and the jump becomes more perilous.

Rauner signed a budget that ended the practice of “pro-rating” the GSA, but that didn’t stop the practice for line items like transportation and special education. Known as mandated categoricals, or “MCats” for short, these line items have been reduced by around 10 percent, sometimes more.

Chuck Lane, superintendent of Centralia High School, says his school gets 60 percent of its budget from the state, so these percentage-based cuts impacts his school more than prosperous districts.

“I mean, fully funding the state aid formula’s great, but when you’re looking at the MCats, if they’re not giving us those, or pro-rating those, it’s really hurting us a lot more than it does a district that has 6 percent of their funding from the state,” he says.

And now, thanks to the budget impasse, even those reduced funds are being delayed.

“Yeah, I got about $100,000 more in state aid this year,” Lane says, “but they took that same amount of money and I haven’t gotten that yet from last year on the MCats. So what have we really gained?”

Pro-ration of MCats has so far cost his district about $1 million, in a $12 million budget, Lane says. Meanwhile, he still has to pay his school’s bus contractor. Lane says Centralia used to have savings; now the district is borrowing money to make ends meet.

Lane’s grateful that GSA is fully funded, and says he doesn’t want to sound like he’s complaining, because he realizes higher education has suffered even more drastic cuts.