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Bad Data Open Funding Gap for Ill. Schools

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In Illinois, school leaders are playing a budget "whodunit."

Schools there stand to receive less state aid this year than expected under a school finance package passed by the legislature in May. Local school officials, in turn, are admonishing members of the legislature for the shortfall, while lawmakers are blaming the state school board, and school board members are pointing to faulty data.

Student-enrollment projections and property-tax estimates short of the real thing have left the state with $52 million less for districts than had been promised by the state board's estimate. The result has been extra belt-tightening in already tight local school budgets, especially down-state.

"We're in deficit-spending mode," said Randolph L. Tinder, the superintendent of the 1,800-student Carlinville district near St. Louis. The Carlinville schools are getting $72,000 less from the state than expected. The district's total 1997-98 budget is $9.3 million, of which $4.1 million comes from the state.

State at a Glance:Illinois

Population: 11.8 million
Governor: Jim Edgar (R)
State Superintendent: Joseph A. Spagnolo
Number of K-12 students: 1.96 million
Number of K-12 schools: 4,145
Fiscal 1998 K-12 budget: $4.5 billion

"It's difficult to provide a high quality of education without adequate resources," Mr. Tinder said. "You just can't depend on the General Assembly to deliver what they promise."

As in many states, Illinois bases its school finance formula on projections. And each winter, the state tallies districts' best guesses about fall student enrollment and the state revenue department's projected assessment of local property wealth.

"It's kind of a guessing game" in a lot of states, said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse.

This year in Illinois, things are woefully off balance. According to the state board of education, the estimated enrollment was 7,332 students fewer than actual attendance, and the statewide equalized-assessed valuation--or the state's total property wealth--was $444 million less than expected.

"These two factors changed the foundation level in our formula, and moving it up will require more money from the General Assembly," said Richard Capriola, a special assistant to state Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo. Whether legislators will oblige is uncertain.

Big Impact in Small Places

David C. Elson, the superintendent for the 1,700-student Litchfield district outside Springfield, said the state shorted his schools $75,000. The state is providing $4 million of the district's $10 million 1997-98 budget.

"Now, that might not sound like a lot, but our district is small enough so that it made a big difference," Mr. Elson said. Litchfield hired its first school nurse and elementary school counselor over the summer, thinking state money would fund the new staff.

Lawmakers "were supposed to address this last spring," Mr. Elson said, referring to the mammoth finance-reform package that Republican Gov. Jim Edgar proposed during the legislative session that ended June 1. The bill died at the 11th hour in the Senate, and lawmakers instead passed a school-funding plan that failed to address the wide disparities between rich and poor school districts in their state. ("Ill. Lawmakers Duck Vow To Revamp Funding," June 11, 1997 and "Odds Seen Better for Funding Reform in Ill.," Feb. 5, 1997.)

Mr. Capriola could not specify why enrollment figures, which local school officials provide the state, were so far off this year. He said district enrollment estimates usually vary by fewer than 2,000-students from actual attendance for the 1.96 million-student Illinois public school system.

Meanwhile, the unusually high decrease in property wealth this year is the result of the proliferation of enterprise zones, he said, which provide tax breaks to businesses in depressed areas; new business-tax abatements; and a spate of court and tax-appeal-board decisions exempted businesses and homeowners from all or part of their property-tax bills.

Mr. Capriola said the estimating process, not the state board, is responsible for the shortfall.

State lawmakers are expected back for a veto session in late October, but it's not yet clear if they will provide schools with more money.

Sen. Vince T. Demuzio, a Democrat and a member of the education committee, said that the state board was partially at fault for "missing enrollment so substantially." But he pointed most of the blame at legislators who opposed Gov. Edgar's funding-reform package.

"If that package had passed we would have never had this dilemma," Sen. Demuzio said. "In the 'year of education' [last legislative session's motto], school districts got screwed."

Ben Schwarm, the director of government relations for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said this year's budget mess is "the symptom of a larger problem" with Illinois' property-tax-reliant school funding formula.

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