MOUNT ZION — Gov. Bruce Rauner pledged Monday to change the language of a funding bill crucial to schools across Illinois as they ready to open in the fall, the latest development in an ongoing battle about how to pay for the state's public education.
Flanked by Central Illinois Republican lawmakers, Rauner said he could not support the bill the General Assembly approved in May and he vowed to use his amendatory veto power to change it. Rauner objects to what he described as a “poison pill” provision that would require the state to pick up the employer's portion of teacher pensions costs for the Chicago Public School District, something the state does for all other school districts.
Lawmakers have not yet sent the legislation, Senate Bill 1, to the governor, who urged House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to do so.
“When I amendatory veto that bill, it will become balanced, equitable and fair for all the school districts across the state,” said Rauner, speaking at a news conference at Mount Zion Junior High School.
The $36 billion state budget enacted by lawmakers this month, which required an override of Rauner’s full veto, includes an additional $350 million for schools. But the legislation requires approval of a new, "evidence-based" funding formula to distribute the money.
The funding model would steer money to schools based on local property wealth and distinct student-population needs, while also ensuring that none of the state's 850 school districts is allocated less than it received this year.
Rauner was joined by Republican state Reps. Brad Halbook of Shelbyville and Bill Mitchell of Forsyth, and state Sens. Jason Barickman of Bloomington and Chapin Rose of Mahomet, who all spoke in support of the move.
“The kids that I represent in my communities and in my district matter just as much as the kids in Chicago, and I want to make sure that they stand just as much of a chance to benefit from a school funding reform as the kids in Chicago," Barickman said.
Rauner is touting the amount he says various school districts would gain under his plan. He said the Mount Zion school district would receive an additional $230,000 on top of the $192,699 gain they’d receive under the bill as written. Decatur would receive an additional $1.6 million per year, over and above the $2.7 million it would gain under the legislation, according to a website created by the governor's office.
SB1 was approved 60-52 in the House and 35-22 in the Senate, both below the three-fifths majorities necessary to override any veto. Despite final approval on May 31, Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, used a procedural move to hold the bill without sending it to the governor.
Rauner criticized the move as an attempt by Democrats to hold school funding hostage to secure money for the Chicago teacher pension fund, while Democrats said at the time it was needed to create a “cool-down” period and prevent a hasty veto.
A spokesman for Cullerton said Monday that discussions are “ongoing” about when to send Rauner the bill. It was still being held as of late Monday afternoon.
Though the bill is held up in the Senate, Rauner focused most of his scorn Monday on a familiar target: Madigan.
Referring to the longtime Democratic Speaker of the House as “ruthless,” “cold-blooded” and a “tyrant,” Rauner blamed Madigan for the concerns of school officials across the state about whether Illinois would come through on its funding promise.
“Support my amendatory veto and you’ll get what you deserve and you’ll be treated equitably,” Rauner said. “Don’t give in to fear. Don’t give in to fear and just take a little penny because it’ll hurt your districts for years if you give in today.”
In a statement released shortly after Rauner's press conference, state Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat who has championed SB1 and the need for a school funding overhaul, said Rauner has never directly contacted him to discuss the bill.
"It is clear to me today that (Rauner) intends to use the children of Illinois as leverage for his political agenda when he could be working out a compromise to accomplish a much-needed and long-awaited reform," Manar said. "I am saddened and discouraged by his display today.”
The idea of using school funding as leverage was discussed several times on Monday. Though Senate Republican leader Bill Brady floated the idea last week to use the education funding as a “leverage point” for other reforms previously pushed by Republicans, those in attendance Monday pushed back.
“Schools have to open, that’s our primary responsibility in the Illinois constitution and it’s just common sense,” Mitchell said.
State Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat who was mentioned several times by Rauner as someone who should support his amendatory veto, said in a statement she was glad to see the governor participate in the discussion on school funding reform.
“I cannot stress how important it is to address this issue now to ensure that our state’s elementary, middle and high schools open without interruption, with the resources they need,” she said. “All children, regardless of their zip code, deserve an equitable education, and it starts with changing the way schools are funded.”
Changes to the state's school funding formula have been a topic of debate for decades in Springfield, as Illinois has the nation’s widest gap between low- and high-income school districts, according to the nonprofit organization The Education Trust. Illinois schools rely on local property taxes to cover more than 60 percent of their costs, it said.
This year was a breakthrough for proponents, as SB1 passed both House and Senate with Democratic support. The new formula incorporates 27 different variables that weigh a school's poverty level, property values and transportation costs, among other factors.
Rauner’s education adviser, Beth Purvis, has previously said the governor agreed with “90 percent” of SB1, though she also said he planned to veto it.
Any protracted fight in Springfield over school funding would be devastating for local school districts, as the State Board of Education has said a funding plan must be approved by Aug. 3 for normal payments to be sent to districts by the start of the fall semester.
Decatur School District Chief Operational Officer Todd Covault told the school board earlier this month that the district could make it until mid-November without state funds. But after that, he said the district would be out of cash to pay its teachers and staff.
Mount Zion Superintendent Travis Roundcount said the district does not have a “drop-dead date” thanks to reserves and property taxes. But he said he hoped lawmakers could come together within the next two weeks to help fund schools.
“We would hope that a new plan could get passed in the near future so we could stay open and provide services to students,” he said.