Illinois Public Schools Look to Tax Plan for Help

    By Andrew Thomason (Illinois Statehouse News) - 1/9/2011 - School districts in Illinois could soon have in hand the nearly $1.1 billion owed to them by the state.
    Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, laid out a plan on Jan. 6 to borrow billions of dollars to pay off the state’s mountain of unpaid bills, then raise the income tax by 75 percent to pay off its new debt.
   Cullerton said Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan have signed on for the borrow-and-tax idea.
   If the Democrats’ proposal gets approved in the final days of the current General Assembly, Manteno Community Unit School District soon could see the $1 million it has been waiting on from the state.
  “I know these are tough decisions that they (legislators) are working on," said Manteno Superintendent Dawn Russert. "I’ve told my local legislator that I’m willing to pay more in an income tax so that the children of our state have a bright future.”
   Paying schools and others the money promised by the state accounts for just a piece of the increase, but the Democrats plan is much more bloated than that, said Jeff Mays, president of Illinois Business Roundtable.
   “The first question in a lot of people’s minds is how can they allow themselves to get in that kind of hole in the first place? How can we allow ourselves to be floating our vendors or our schools when we’re expanding programs?” Mays said.
  Some have accused the legislature of holding schools and social service hostage in exchange for a tax increase.
  Carthage Elementary School District Superintendent Vicki Hardy said she didn’t necessarily agree with that, but said she is tired of the state playing chicken with her district’s funding, only to avoid a disaster at the last second.
  “We go back to our staff and say there are going to be this many cuts across the board because the state tells us that is what is going to happen," Hardy said. "And then two months after the school year starts, well more money has come in, they found money here, which is great, don’t me wrong. But then, year after year, it makes (the administration) look like we’re liars.”
  Having the state withhold payments makes it hard to craft budgets, according to Christopher Norman, director of finances at Alton Community School District. The state owes the Alton district more than $3 million.
  “The frustrating part is that if this continues, we will be getting to a point where you start dismantling programs that are doing the things you want to do,” Norman said.
  It also creates an environment of uncertainty for employees of the schools.
  “I look at the human side when you give risk notices to staff members, and maybe for some of our teachers, they’re the only ones working," Russert said. That puts a lot of stress in their lives as well, as “am I going to be able to make my mortgage payments? Am I going to be able to put food on the table for my kids next year?’”.
  In addition settling the state's past-due account, the Democrats plan would create an education fund paid for by increasing the cost of a pack of cigarettes by a dollar, according to Cullerton.
  He said that there would be no strings attached to the $377 million fund.
  Cullerton said the tax hike would originate in the Illinois House, which failed to pass a tax increase in 2009 for lack of support.
  The House is back in Springfield Sunday to tie up the loose ends of the current session before a new General Assembly session begins on Jan. 12.
   Story courtesy of Illinois Statehouse News