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Schools' financial gains questioned
By Diane Rado
State Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago) criticized state education officials Monday for portraying school districts as making remarkable progress in improving their finances.
"Don't you think that was a bit misleading?" he asked Illinois State Board of Education finance administrators Monday at the first meeting of a new Senate Select Committee on Education Funding Reform at Thornton High School in Harvey. Del Valle is a co-chairman of the committee.
The board released a preliminary report last month of districts that were deficit spending in 2004 compared with 2003. The report showed the number of deficit districts had declined significantly, progress praised by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But the Tribune later reported that some of those districts remained deeply troubled, borrowing heavily to meet payroll and to shore up their fund balances.
Del Valle also asked why the state board, now controlled by the governor's appointees, released the preliminary figures without a more thorough analysis. The release came just a few days before Blagojevich's budget address to lawmakers.
Education board members said the media had been asking for the figures.
The exchange illustrates how contentious the battle over school finance reform is expected to be over the next several months, as key senators under the leadership of Senate President Emil Jones press to reform the school finance system.
The main proposals involve raising the state income tax and lowering property taxes long relied upon to pay for schools. The system creates major inequities between wealthy and poor districts and often shortchanges disadvantaged students, education officials say.
But Blagojevich is steadfastly opposed to raising the income or sales taxes, and critics have accused him of downplaying financial problems of schools and dragging his feet on addressing major education issues.
After the threat of a lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Blagojevich on Monday appointed new members to the Education Funding Advisory Board that recommends per-student funding levels for schoolchildren. The group is scheduled to meet Wednesday.
A long line of speakers emphasized the need for reform on Monday, saying school districts have laid off teachers, increased class sizes, cut extracurricular programs and taken other drastic measures because they don't have enough money to operate. Health care and special education costs, fuel and other expenses have risen at a faster pace than revenues, they said, even with significant increases in education funding pushed through by the Blagojevich administration.
However, some speakers were critical of school districts that give out 20 percent raises to retiring teachers and borrow heavily to cover operating expenses, burdening taxpayers.
The debate over the way schools are funded has gone on for so long that several speakers expressed impatience.
"I come here as a tired person," said Bert Docter, a former member of the Education Funding Advisory Board. "It seems like it's always the same old, same old. It's not about quality education. It's all about politics."
The last time Illinois seriously considered education finance reform was in 1997, when then-Gov. Jim Edgar tried unsuccessfully to cut property taxes and raise income taxes to fund schools.
Del Valle said Monday that it would take a bipartisan effort by lawmakers, and support from local officials, such as city mayors, to make reform happen. But with Blagojevich against tax increases, del Valle made no promises Monday.
"This is a real, honest, bipartisan attempt to come up with some solutions," he said. "We won't guarantee that over the next few months, we'll be able to do that."
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