School District Strikes Fueled By Illinois Money Problems

The ongoing strike in Galesburg, Illinois could be an example of something widespread going on across the state.

Over the last year and a half, there have been at least three school districts in the Illinois QCA that went on strike or have been close to going on strike.

However, while both sides point fingers, some say something else may be to blame.

“It really is a sad thing that really doesn’t have anything to do with the two organization that are bargaining here,” says Bart Arthur, Superintendent of the Galesburg School District. “It has to do with the state funding mechanism.”

“The state’s finances – it’s just a mess right now and it’s very difficult to plan and I think the Galesburg Superintendent is right,” says Dr. Jay Morrow, Superintendent of the United Township High School District in East Moline. “This is a state issue. It’s not a local issue. It’s very unfortunate for our kids.”

 

News 8 sat down with Dr. Morrow on Thursday, August 14th, 2014 to get his take. He says leaders in school districts across the state deal with uncertainty on two big issues.

The first is the income tax rate. It went up from 3% to 5% in 2011, but is set to go back down to 3.75% in 2015 unless whoever becomes Illinois Governor and the Illinois Legislature decides to extend the tax hike. Dr. Morrow says he supports keeping the rate at 5%.

“If that goes away, there’s going to have to be massive cuts, so that’s a huge uncertainty for every entity that relies on the state for funding,” Dr. Morrow says.

The other big issue, he says, is the state’s pension reform plan. In 2013, the Illinois Legislature passed a controversial reform bill strongly opposed by several organizations. In fact, right now, it’s being challenged in court.

“If the lawsuit is ruled unconstitutional, there’s a good chance that the pension cost will be shifted back to the local school districts,” says Dr. Morrow.

“Most schools are very fiscally prudent and have saved for the rainy day. It’s raining right now, but if those two things happen it’s going to be pouring.”

Dr. Morrow says that storm is made worse by a statewide disparity in property taxes, which is a major revenue source for schools. He says property taxes in Western Illinois have flat-lined, meaning school districts depend more on the state for funding.

“If you have a wealthy suburb, their property tax base is much larger than a poor suburb or a poor rural district or just a poor district in general so they’re relying more on state aid, so generally the poorer the property value in districts is, the more they’re relying on the state so they’re impacted more by the state cuts.”

Illinois’ situation is much different from Iowa’s. Dr. Morrow says funding is distributed more equitably because their funding mechanism doesn’t rely solely on property taxes.

“There’s much more that goes into the pot such as graduated income tax and sales tax that is much more broader and lower,” he says.

Dr. Morrow and Mr. Arthur say those are some of the things that need to change in Illinois, but it’s a challenge.

“The only other way for funding to increase – if the state’s not going to do it – is you have to go back to your property taxpayers for a referendum and that’s tough to ask people to do,” says Dr. Morrow.

“I hope our state legislators can figure out a way how to do a better job of funding schools, because if I remember, the last I looked we were the last in the nation in funding,” says Mr. Arthur.

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