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Suburban schools funding could lose political protection
By Nicole Milstead | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 6/3/2009 4:43 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - The apparent demise of a more than decade-old political provision thrown into an education funding law could cost nearly a dozen suburban school districts millions in state aid.

In 1997, as part of a sweeping funding plan pushed by then-Gov. Jim Edgar, state lawmakers included a politically driven provision that ensured no district anywhere in the state would lose money under the deal.

The plan, known as "hold harmless", guarantees that schools will not get less funding than they received in 1997 even if their enrollments drop. Attendance is a key factor in setting the amount of state aid.

But faced with a struggling economy and sinking state budget, Illinois education officials have proposed doing away with the provision so the millions of dollars can be sent to other schools.

"The state board of education, because of the tight budget, they have recommended we do away with it," said state Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican who's also the local school superintendent.

The state education board said schools will likely get half of their "hold harmless" funding for the 2009-10 school year and then none of it the following year. That's in the proposed state budget, but it has not yet been signed into law.

Area lawmakers were concerned about the impact on their local districts.

"Well I think it will be very challenging for the districts," said state Rep. Sandra Pihos, a Glen Ellyn Republican, whose DuPage County district includes several schools that would lose money. "I think they should have had some forewarning and that if the hold harmless was going to go away then it should have been decreased incrementally so they could adjust to those funding levels."

Such a plan was proposed by Rep. Eddy and Rep. JoAnn Osmond, an Antioch Republican. Their version stretched the phase out over five years.

"We are still eliminating 'hold harmless' but we are doing it in a way where school districts hopefully will have a chance to adjust to the loss of money over five years rather than a 50 percent cliff right away," said Eddy.

Osmond was similarly trying to cushion the blow.

"I understand the reason for discontinuing it," she said. "Unfortunately one of my schools is effected by it. It is one of those things we have to really look at the programs. Is it really worthwhile? This was never permanent and I believe the time has probably ran out for it to be effective."

Osmond's district includes Grass Lake District 36, which received nearly $25,000 in hold harmless funding this year.

Some suburban schools have begun to prepare for the cuts. Fox River Grove Elementary District 3 Superintendent Tim Mahaffy said the district would lose $150,000 in next year's budget.

"We have already not rehired a teacher in preparation and we are beginning to consolidate classes," he said.

State Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican, was worried about the bad timing of this reduction in state aid.

"Obviously it is going to cut into their budget at a time that is already difficult because of all the economic pressures that both the state and the local economy is putting on these districts," said Fortner, whose district includes Winfield Elementary District 34, which received $23,000 under hold harmless this year.

Schools like Queen Bee Elementary District 16 in Glendale Heights are facing dramatic cuts because of less tax revenue and state aid for next year. Business Manager Matt Zeller said the district has planned for $700,000 less next year. Only $150,000 of that would be from the partial elimination of hold harmless dollars.

The district cut administrative and support staff positions as well as some services. School officials are now reviewing which teachers are resigning or retiring and planning not to fill those positions if possible.

Until Gov. Pat Quinn and the legislative leaders can come to an agreement on a state operational budget, local schools will not know how much aid they will receive.