After two years, Illinois finally got a budget last week, but you won't find anybody in charge of Quad-City area schools breathing a sigh of relief.
Educators are still worried about the prospect that state aid won't flow from Springfield this fall because — so far, anyway — lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner haven't been able to come to a deal on how to reform the state's flawed K-12 funding formula.
"I don't think the urgency has hit yet (that) 'Wait a second, some schools may not be able to open,'" Jay Morrow, superintendent of United Township High School District 30, said this week.
Morrow said that even if state money isn't released, United Township won't have to shut its doors. It has enough, for the time being, in its reserves to keep teachers and kids in the classrooms.
Other area districts say they will open, too, but they're pretty uncomfortable about the prospect that an extended standoff over school funding reform will imperil state aid.
"I don't want to imagine what it would do to a community not to have schools open," said East Moline Superintendent Kristin Humphries, although he said East Moline will open, too.
Last week's budget agreement included funding for schools but requires adoption of an "evidence-based" funding model that's aimed at reforming an existing system that produces large per-student inequities among school districts.
The model, backers say, will tie money to best practices and figure out, based on each district's unique makeup, what it will take to get them toward adequate funding.
However, Gov. Bruce Rauner and backers of SB1, the reform plan that passed the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, are at odds over the legislation.
Rauner has threatened to veto the bill, which is being held at the moment in the Legislature. Rauner and his supporters have called it a bailout for Chicago schools.
Backers say that's not true. They say the legislation will hold harmless every district in the state, including Chicago, then provide new money through the improved system.
However, until the argument is resolved or a Rauner veto is overridden, which would be difficult, school funding will be hung up.
The argument over how Chicago is treated is a complex one. Republicans are complaining that SB1 allows Illinois' largest school district to unfairly build existing money, such as a $250 million block grant from the state, into a base level of funding from which new money will be distributed using the new formula.
Republicans say this arrangement will come at the expense of downstate and suburban schools.
"I can't support it when it puts Chicago kids before my own," said state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna. She added that Chicago pension costs, which are incorporated into SB1, should be dealt with along with the rest of the state's pension woes.
Supporters of SB1 say Chicago isn't getting a break at all. They say that the city's school system is giving up the grant going forward and that it is the only district in the state currently paying its own pension costs. Supporters say it's only appropriate that the state treat Chicago's pension costs like the rest of the state and that no district loses money in the transition.
"I think the Chicago bailout is a political argument," said Rep. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island. "It treats everyone in the state fairly. It prevents any district from going backward and losing funding.”
By and large, all sides agree the current funding system is terrible. A state commission charged with examining reform proposals reported last year that Illinois ranked third-worst in the country in the gap in per-pupil spending between the state's wealthiest and poorest districts.
Humphries, the East Moline superintendent, is supportive of SB1. The East Moline district is one of the bigger winners. It would get a nearly $444 per-pupil increase, or $1.2 million for the district. The district has a large number of students who are English-language learners. The reform model also recognizes districts with poorer populations and the challenges that brings.
For Humphries, however, it's not just a chance to gain more money for the district, but he added, "This is a chance for school funding reform for people across Illinois for the first time in a generation."
A rival Republican bill was introduced last month that would put in place a funding method with similarities to SB1. It offers downstate and suburban schools more money than SB1, but it does so by lowering Chicago's base level of funding.
Aside from the Chicago issue, there is an aspect of the reform plan that causes Alan Boucher, superintendent at the Sherrard Community School District, to blanch.
He sees urban districts getting far more new money than his own rural district. The new money, he said, will allow urban districts to pay higher salaries and lure his teachers away. Boucher said that's already a problem.
"That makes it tough on us," he said.
There are only about three weeks to go before the start of school. And while the state's budget agreement was hailed as an accomplishment after two years of stalemate, preparations at Quad-City area school districts bear some resemblance to what was going on last year when the budget impasse also threatened the opening of schools.
Holly Sparkman, a spokeswoman for the Rock Island-Milan district, said the district will open even without state aid. The district has sufficient reserves to open and go through the first semester. But once the calendar got into the second semester, it would be a different story. The district would have to look at borrowing to make its budget work.
“The last few months we would have to figure out," she said.
In East Moline, Humphries said, the lack of state aid wouldn't keep the doors from opening, but after Oct. 1, the district would have to explore a line of credit.
Asked his thoughts on the prospects of an extended stalemate, Humphries said, "I'm always going to be optimistic."
McCombie added that she, too, thinks a resolution will be worked out.
"To mess with our children is a bad deal," she said.