Rauner gets education bill, vows 'swift action'

Senate President John Cullerton said Monday the education bill is on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk — and the governor’s office vowed “swift action.”

As the  clock ticked Monday, Senate Democrats said they delivered the long-awaited education bill  — as House Democrats accused the governor of playing politics.

State 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 the Republican governor before classes start in mid-August.

Senate President John Cullerton’s office said Democrats met the Monday deadline.

“By merely signing his name the governor can deliver on his promise to overhaul the worst school funding system in the nation,” the North Side Democrat said in a statement.

“This reform has been 20 years in the making. I encourage Governor Rauner to make it law. Students, parents, teachers and taxpayers have waited long enough. This is a chance to make a huge, meaningful change for Illinois. This is an opportunity to make Illinois more competitive and more compassionate. I hope the governor will seize the opportunity. Do the right thing, Mr. Governor, sign the bill.”

The governor’s office said it’s about time.

“Democrats have been sitting on the education funding bill for two months, in effect holding our students hostage and threatening our public schools’ ability to open on time,” said Laurel Patrick, a Rauner spokeswoman. “Finally, this afternoon, the bill was sent to the governor’s desk. The governor will now review the bill and take swift action.”

House Speaker Mike Madigan issued a statement saying, “House Democrats will continue to reach across the aisle and work with legislative Republicans in order to enact bipartisan education funding reform.

“Every child in Illinois deserves a great education, but too many are being held back by one of the most unfair funding formulas in the country, and the reform we need is being held back by a governor who is determined to pit one child against another for political gain.

“Democrats know that many legislative Republicans share our commitment to fair funding for all schools. We will work together on behalf of our children, our schools and our communities, even if the governor continues to choose chaos over compromise.”

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.”

Despite Rauner’s demand for a bill, Senate Democrats questioned whether he really wanted it on this desk Monday.

Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, called it “an open question.”

“The question is to whether or not the governor would like the bill today,” Manar told reporters. “Regardless, we would ask him not to veto the bill and commit to further negotiations.

“Again we would have liked them to happen months ago at this point. They started on Saturday, we’ve made progress since Saturday and we think that will lead to a reasonable compromise. If the governor vetoes the bill, that essentially would bring these discussions to a close.”

Manar characterized the bipartisan negotiations between legislative leaders as productive and cordial.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-West Side, agreed, describing the talks as “just friendly negotiations.”

“Very cordial, very cordial,” she said. “We’re trying to get to a solution, so the goal here is to compromise at best and come up with what we think will be a very good model, building on the work Sen. Manar has done and Rep. [Will] Davis, D-Hazel Crest, over the years. We’re trying to make sure we have a very good formula.”

 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 Manar, 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.

Contributing: Associated Press.

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