State

Illinois lawmakers resume talks on school funding deal

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FILE - In this July 26, 2017 file photo, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks during a news conference on the first day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol, in Springfield, Ill. A proposal to change how Illinois distributes school money is locked up in a fight between the Democrat-majority Legislature and Republican Gov. Rauner. (Justin Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP File)[]

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers were trying Monday to negotiate a new plan for doling out money to schools in hopes of settling the latest disagreement between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Republican governor before classes start in mid-August.

Gov. Bruce Rauner gave Democrats a Monday deadline to send him a plan they approved in May, so that he could immediately veto additional funding for Chicago Public Schools that he has repeatedly called a "bailout."

Senate President John Cullerton warned that Rauner's changes would jeopardize money for all of Illinois' roughly 850 school districts. That's because if legislators can't muster enough votes to either approve or override the governor — scenarios that appear unlikely — the legislation dies, and there's no back-up plan ready to go.

Cullerton said last week he would send the measure to the governor's desk Monday, but it was unclear whether that would still happen as a bipartisan group of legislators gathered behind closed doors at the Capitol.

The negotiators first talked Saturday and Sunday, said Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat who sponsored the initial bill. He declined to elaborate on the details of their discussions.

"It was productive," he said. "It was time well spent."

A spokeswoman for Rauner's office had no comment Monday afternoon.

But Rep. Jim Durkin, the House Republican leader, said the talks will likely continue this week and called the meetings a positive sign. He said lawmakers are "very cognizant" that not getting state funds could put many school districts in a bind, even if most if not all are expected to open on time.

"I'm not willing to take that risk," he said.

In southern Illinois, Sandoval Superintendent Jennifer Garrison said she's assessing the approximately 500-student district's finances on a week-to-week basis. Without a state infusion, the district might be able to make payroll for as many as two months, considering its cash on hand, reserves and local property tax revenue.

But Garrison said she's frozen spending in the district to essentials only, including power and water.

She said the funding limbo is especially frustrating because the school has recently experienced improvements it hopes to continue, such as its highest graduation rate in years.

"The focus is on politics instead of being on the children where it needs to be," she said. "I hope the leaders can rise above the politics."

A new school formula is required as part of the budget that legislators approved earlier this month. Without a new calculation, schools won't get paid.

The first payment to schools is due Aug. 10.

Lawmakers from both parties agree the 20-year-old calculation currently used to fund public schools in Illinois is unfair, but they've clashed over how to fix it.

The proposed formula channels money to the neediest districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year. It also includes pension help for Chicago.

Democrats insist the pending proposal is fair since Chicago is the only Illinois district that pays the employer portion of teacher pension costs. Republicans say the new formula means Chicago will continue to get money that it previously received as a block grant.