- Associated Press - Friday, September 5, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - A number of top Democratic House lawmakers have been quietly meeting to discuss a proposed overhaul of Illinois’ dated school funding formula, which, if approved, would direct more state money to poorer rural districts at the expense of wealthier suburban districts.

Members of the group told The Associated Press the meetings came at the behest of House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose chamber declined to take up the issue last spring despite its passage by the Senate and widespread calls for the first revamp of the formula in nearly two decades.

“With the specter of additional dollars going away, and that’s a very, very real specter, there has to be a way to allocate money to the districts most in need,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, Madigan’s point person on budget issues. “We have to have something in place to make sure the districts with the highest poverty and least available wealth don’t fold.”

Will Davis, chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Appropriations Committee, said at least three of the meetings were held over the summer, and hearings on the issue are planned for after the November election.

Among the roughly dozen lawmakers who have attended the meetings are Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, House Revenue Chairman John Bradley, the two Democratic chairs of House education committees and Mautino. The involvement of so many high-ranking Democrats suggests the proposal is getting more serious consideration at a time the state faces the loss of billions in revenue from the scheduled rollback next January of the temporary income tax increase.



Republican lawmakers have not been involved in the meetings and haven’t signaled whether they will ultimately support the proposal. The Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, though their margins could shrink after the election.

Vicki Crawford, spokeswoman for House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, said Thursday that GOP lawmakers had “been made aware by special interest groups that the Democrats are holding secret meetings” but said that was the extent of the caucus’ knowledge.

“It’s clear from the House Democrats’ actions that (the school funding legislation) is not in its final form, so we will wait and see what is presented to the House,” Crawford said.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, aims to even out disparities between districts with rich property tax bases and those that are property-poor.

Manar’s plan would require schools to demonstrate need before receiving almost all state money and, as a result, reduce the amount of state aid currently given to wealthier districts, with an amendment he later introduced to the bill capping the per-pupil loss in dollars in wealthy districts at $1,000 per student. State board of education calculations show schools in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg would see a $12.4 million decrease in overall state aid - a loss of $1,000 in state funding, per student - under the formula change, while Galesburg schools could stand to gain about $5 million more a year than they receive now - a boost of $1,185 per student.

In the meetings, the group met with stakeholders and began to discuss possible changes that might improve the legislation, participants said.

Davis told The AP the meetings have included officials from teachers’ unions and school districts, as well as the Illinois State Board of Education, which has advised lawmakers on components of the bill. He said hearings could be scheduled around the legislature’s fall veto session.

Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said the speaker has not been directly involved but planned to “rely on their work product as it comes along going forward.”

Mautino, whose office is in the same suite as the speaker’s at the capitol, noted that a number of financial issues will play into the school funding formula debate, including whether lawmakers vote to extend the temporary tax hike and the fate of a judicial challenge to the state’s pension crisis solution.

“Nothing exists in a vacuum,” he said.

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Follow Kerry Lester on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kerrylester

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