JOLIET – With a state school funding system reliant on property taxes and other local sources, leaders across the state are looking into new ways to increase state support and make funding more equitable.
Property taxes and other local funding now make up about 67 percent of the total amount that school districts receive on average statewide, the highest percentage in at least 10 years, according to the 2015-16 Illinois Report Card. That local share has been consistently larger than what districts receive in state and federal funding.
For some districts in Will County, local revenue has increased steadily over the years as state funding remains either low or inconsistent. Reliance on local revenue isn’t an issue for districts because they’ve been either historically stable or generally receive more in state revenue, but some local officials say there should be more state support.
“The state has a primary responsibility for paying the majority of public education,” said Tim Baldermann, Union School District 81 superintendent.
The Illinois School Funding Reform Commission, which was created in July to investigate the state’s funding system, released a report this week with recommendations to increase state support, better define adequate funding for schools and fund them more equitably to benefit less wealthy districts.
The commission stated in its report that there was a consensus among its members that the state’s past method of prorating – or reducing full payment of – state funding to schools was detrimental to poor districts, as they are more reliant on state resources.
The state’s funding system has been deemed by the Education Law Center one of the most regressive in the nation. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, in its recommendations for school funding reform, stated the primary reason for inequity in school funding is over-reliance on local property taxes.
Ben Schwarm, Illinois Association of School Boards deputy executive director, said school funding is a complicated issue, and property taxes play a part in it.
“The nature of the beast is that property taxes in school districts and all units of government are very reliable. … The state, well, there’s not a lot of trust going on with the state,” he said.
At Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202, local revenue comprises 66 percent of the district’s budget, while 34 percent consists of state and federal sources. Local revenue has fluctuated since at least 2006, from 63 percent in 2006 to 68 percent in 2013, while state revenue hovered between 27 percent to 36 percent.
Lane Abrell, the district’s superintendent, said in an email that districts similar to District 202 are in a bind. The district has overall declining enrollment, leading to less general state aid, and yet it is subjected – like all districts – to that aid being prorated.
“Those factors lead us to continually be reliant on our local property taxes,” Abrell said.
At District 81, local funding has increased by 23 percent in 10 years, with 91 percent of its funding comprised of local revenue, while 6 percent is state funding. Baldermann said most of the district’s local revenue comes from industrial properties, and the district has improved its finances to the point where it reimburses residents.
He said he thinks the state should do more funding of public education, but the notion that districts receiving more money will improve educational outcomes is “preposterous.” He said parents of low-income families need better jobs and more help with engaging with their children’s education.
“That’s how you’re going to make a difference that will do far greater for the kids and their education,” Baldermann said.
District 86 receives a greater portion of state funding compared to local funding because of its high amount of low-income students. The district hasn’t needed to become more reliant on local revenues, said Nicholas Sakellariou, the district’s legal services and labor relations chief officer.
One issue many local district leaders across Joliet, New Lenox and Plainfield agree on is the potential negative effect of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal for a permanent freeze on property taxes by not having them rise unless voters decide to raise them at the ballot box.
If the freeze is for a two- or three-year period for Joliet Township High School District 204, for example, it could represent a loss of $3 million to $6 million, said Ilandus Hampton, the district’s assistant superintendent for business services.
“Those are dollars you lose forever,” he said.