Lee Ann Gemmingen said she’s been getting calls from educators asking, “What are we going to do if we don’t have school?”
Gemmingen is a West Junior High School teacher and the union president. She works in Belleville District 118, which doesn’t expect to have enough revenue to operate for much longer than a month into the school year without state aid money.
The state missed its first aid payment to schools this week because lawmakers are still negotiating an overhaul of its education funding formula, which determines how money is distributed to Illinois schools.
The General Assembly approved a new formula with mostly Democratic support in May through Senate Bill 1, but Gov. Bruce Rauner used an amendatory veto this month to send the legislation back to lawmakers with recommendations for change.
Some lawmakers and educators met at the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education on Friday to discuss the changes the governor is requesting in his amendatory veto and to promote Senate Bill 1.
Rauner has said his proposed changes would benefit downstate schools by diverting some of the money promised to Chicago Public Schools.
During their Belleville visit, State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and State Reps. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, and LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, told educators that the governor’s changes actually hurt those schools.
The Democratic-controlled Senate returns to Springfield on Sunday and is expected to take up a motion to override the amendatory veto. The chamber needs 36 votes to override or to accept the governor’s changes. There are 37 Democrats in the Senate.
In the House, which will be in session on Wednesday, some Republicans would need to vote to override the amendatory veto to reach the three-fifths majority, or 71 votes, that’s required because there are only 67 Democrats.
Hoffman said the House could renew the motion to override the amendatory veto if it isn’t successful the first time.
If both chambers can’t reach a three-fifths majority, the legislation dies, and schools continue waiting for state aid payments without a mechanism to send the money to them.
Rauner has spoken publicly and written in his amendatory veto message about his disapproval of Senate Bill 1’s pension provisions for Chicago Public Schools, saying that the legislation isn’t fair to downstate schools because of the amount of money it sends to Chicago.
“My message is: let’s do pension reform,” Rauner previously told the News-Democrat editorial board. “That’s fine. ... But don’t use leverage of our schools and taking money away from the districts that need it to force no pension reform, just payments from the state to the mismanaged Chicago pensions. That’s wrong.”
Greenwood says lawmakers shouldn’t be discussing “downstate vs. the city of Chicago, pitting us against them.”
“Instead, we are one state that should plan for our future by investing in all of our children and all of our teachers in all of our communities,” she said.
Brent Clark, who helped create Senate Bill 1, told educators at the regional office of education on Friday that the governor’s amendatory veto actually included 102 changes, which “basically destroys the entire intention of the bill: to bring adequacy and equity to kids all across Illinois.”
Clark is the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. Before he took over that role, Clark was Belleville District 201’s superintendent.
He says Rauner’s amendatory veto might result in more money for school districts in the first year but not over time.
According to Clark, Senate Bill 1 calculates the amount of funding each district would receive by determining how much money it needs per student, how much money it can contribute through local property taxes and how much money it currently receives from the state. The gap between what it needs and what it has available to spend is how districts are categorized, Clark said.
Districts with the largest gaps are considered the neediest and would receive 99 percent of the new money allocated for schools, according to Clark.
As the bill is written, Clark said the state is “recalibrating” those figures every year as district’s enrollment and demographics change. He says Rauner’s veto removes those annual recalibrations.
Senate Bill 1 also takes into account the new costs that districts will be responsible for when they begin taking over pension costs for new teachers, according to Clark. But he said the amendatory veto removes that provision, among other changes.
Manar, who is a bill sponsor, argues that the governor’s changes would “divest the state over time from its responsibility to fund public education.”
“The governor’s veto shuts off the spigot here, there, here, there, so that over time, the state’s investment in public education goes down,” he said.
Gemmingen has been a teacher in the same classroom for the last 27 years. From the budget impasses to the current fight over school funding reform, she said classrooms have been affected.
“We don’t have the funds to do things that we would like to do for students to help them even more,” she said. “While we haven’t cut programs, we have opportunities where we could certainly add staff to help at-risk students, and we don’t have the funds to do that.”
Through all of the stalemates in Springfield, Gemmingen said schools haven’t faced the threat of closing like they do now. “There were concerns last year, but this year is much more real,” she said.
If schools are forced to close after using up their reserves, Gemmingen says for teachers, that means “we’re not going to get paid, and our students aren’t going to be in school, and we’re not going to be able to do what we love to do. And that’s a big concern.”
Closings also affect working parents, especially in districts with high poverty levels, she said.
“Right now, if we don’t get the funding that we need to sustain our school year, the parents are going to be in trouble because they have to go to their job, and they don’t have a place for their kids to go, and their kids aren’t getting that education,” Gemmingen said. “We need kids to be in school. That’s the really important part.”
Superintendent Gabe Schwemmer, who attended the meeting on Friday, said Sparta District 140 in Randolph County is preparing to borrow money to operate through the school year.
In Belleville District 201, Superintendent Jeff Dosier said the district leaders have been reaching out to lawmakers throughout the debate on school funding reform.
“We really need to get this settled,” he said.