ETHS, District 65 stand to lose millions from state budget proposal

Marissa Page, Assistant City Editor

Evanston schools could lose up to almost $9 million in state assets if a bill passes that reforms funding for Illinois schools.

The losses — about $6.6 million for Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and $2.2 million for School District 202 — would constitute 85 and 81 percent of each district’s respective state funding.

Although the cuts will be phased in incrementally over four years, the loss would still have a stark impact on current operation of District 65 schools, according to a March 6 statement by the lobbyist group Ed-Red, which represents suburban school districts such as 65 and 202 in the state capital.

“We have no room to absorb the revenue loss,” said Kathy Zalewski, business manager for District 65. “The district would probably have to engage in some major restructuring.”

The bill was first introduced in a slightly different form in 2014 by Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill). The initial proposal was met with criticism from the would-be affected Illinois school districts in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, which would have lost a total $228 million in state funding, with Districts 65 and 202 shouldering $8.7 million of that amount.

Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) hosted a September 2014 press conference with panelists Manar and District 65 superintendent Paul Goren to tease out the details of the bill’s potential effect on Districts 65 and 202.

Biss began the conference expressing his discontent with the current funding structure for Evanston schools, which rely heavily on local property taxes for funding.

“The bill … takes as its starting point the recognition that (the property tax funding issue is) more to bite off at once than can be done,” he said. “It attempts to address a single component of this longer program of finding ways to raise adequate revenue to fund all our schools and do it in an equitable way.”

Biss lauded the bill’s approach to what he said is a problematic issue, but said he was open to further input from the community.

In October 2014, Districts 65 and 202 released a joint statement opposing the bill, highlighting the “fundamental defects” in its provisions and urging the Illinois General Assembly to vote it down.

The bill seeks to reallocate funding to areas that demonstrate greater need based on district property taxes. Evanston has high property taxes, but pockets of Districts 65 and 202 are highly-concentrated impoverished areas, the joint statement said. Low-income students represent 38 percent of the District 65 student population and 44 percent of students at Evanston Township High School.

“The answer to the inequity of a system that forces local communities to take on an obligation of the state is not to penalize those who take on that burden but for the state to acknowledge its own obligation and properly fund education,” Districts 65 and 202 said in the statement.

Earlier this year, Manar reintroduced the bill in its updated form after consulting with more than 400 local superintendents, parents and educators in forums such as Biss’s September press conference. The changes, which focus primarily on changing the funding appropriations formula to make special dispensations for districts with mentally or economically disadvantaged students, would still drain the same portion of funds from District 65 and ETHS. Biss has yet to release a statement on the changes made to the bill.

District 202 board president Gretchen Livingston said ETHS generally tries to avoid affecting teachers when faced with budget restructuring, but the $2.2 million deficit could make some job cuts unavoidable.

“When you’re talking about losses of millions of dollars and 80 percent of your budget is personnel, it’s going to be difficult to figure out how to apply those cuts without affecting your personnel in some way,” Livingston said. “Whether it will be attrition or thoughtful combining of roles, it’s hard to say yet.”

Another recent piece of legislation in the House would introduce a property tax freeze that could cut up to 67 percent of District 65’s overall budget. This would place a tremendous strain on the district’s funding, Zalewski said, especially if Manar’s bill is approved.

“This legislation would have an adverse impact on the quality of our educational services and on our school district as a whole,” she added.

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