Balancing school books
District 186 is financially stable, but still hurting from past cuts
It’s only the fourth day of the school year in Springfield Public School District 186, but already Teresa Holton has her AP literature and composition students at Southeast High School reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a challenging book in many ways. The students aren’t just reading the book; they’re dissecting its missing quotation marks, minimalist dialogue and jarring but deeply descriptive prose. The lack of chapters, Holton points out, gives the reader no convenient stopping point, which illustrates the endless struggles of the apocalyptic world McCarthy created.
As her class period draws to a close, she thumbs through the book to find an appropriate page number for the students to read by next week.
“100,” she announces.
“Ha,” comes a loud guffaw from a student at the back of the room, as if Holton is joking. She gives the student “The Look” that all teachers eventually master.
Holton’s class is one of several Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered in District 186 high schools. The classes, which offer students a chance to earn college credit in calculus, physics, biology, government, history and other topics while still in high school, are optional for both students and the district itself. These engaging classes are also a testament to what District 186 has been able to do despite inadequate, erratic funding.
The district is regaining its footing after weathering a financial storm that began in 2010, thanks to the economic recession and the State of Illinois’ financial crisis. While the district’s outlook for now is stable, the cuts made in the past four years remain, and the district’s future is still subject to the ever-changing winds of politics and economics. There are plans in motion to mitigate that vulnerability, but immediate action seems unlikely.
Four years of cuts
In 2010, District 186 finances took a huge hit. The State of Illinois, going through its own financial crisis that continues to this day, cut funding for districts around the state through “proration,” a technical term for giving districts only a percentage of what the Illinois State Board of Education recommends. For Springfield, that meant getting only 89 percent of what the state had promised. Joe Bascio (pronounced like the end of Tabasco) calculated that over the past five years, Springfield Public Schools has been “prorated” out of nearly $19 million in state funding. Bascio, who has worked for Springfield Public Schools for 29 years and spent the last three as business manager, says for fiscal year 2016, the district expects to be shorted $3.1 million.
While the state was stiffing schools, the economic recession was drastically devaluing the investments held by District 186, wiping out about $4.6 million of the district’s investment income from calendar year 2008 ($11.5 million) to 2009 ($6.9 million). Investment income for District 186 still hasn’t recovered, with about $7.8 million projected for Fiscal Year 2016.
Scott McFarland was on the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education in 2010 when the district’s revenue collapsed. He’s now the chairman of Invest in 186, a community group focused on supporting the district through funding advocacy and volunteerism. McFarland says the depth of cuts required to balance the budget in 2010 would have devastated the district, so the board decided to spread the cuts out over four years.
That meant laying off support staff, eliminating full-time librarians at elementary schools, allowing the number of teachers to decrease through attrition, not updating technology and equipment, reducing teaching hours, trimming elective courses and more. In 2013, the district closed Wanless and Pleasant Hill elementary schools, as well as the Capital College Preparatory Academy, an alternative middle school for students interested in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics in college.
“People assume the district has plenty of money and is spending more than it should,” McFarland said. “I can tell you from poring over that budget for four years, that’s not the case.”
School funding primer
Education funding in Illinois is complex. School districts in Illinois receive revenue from several sources, including federal and state money, local property and sales taxes, and grants from various levels of government. Many districts, Springfield included, also have investments that provide some revenue. The state pays schools a per-student “foundation level” each year and provides “supplemental state aid” to help districts with large proportions of low-income students.
The state’s contribution makes up only about 29 percent of Springfield Public Schools’ revenue each year, which means local property taxes fill most of the remaining budget gap. (Federal funding provides about 13 percent.)
Each year, a school district can increase the tax rate on property by up to five percent (not five percentage points) or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. The rate of inflation for last year was 1.5 percent, but Joe Bascio says the district also receives a boost from any new properties that are taxed for the first time, usually through new construction. Effectively, the 2014 property tax rate (payable in 2015) for District 186 rose 2.92 percent over the previous year, from 5.0184 percent in 2013 to 5.1650 percent in 2014.
In order to raise the tax rate more than five percent in a year, the district must ask voter approval through a ballot referendum. School districts can also ask voters for a 1 percent sales tax increase, but that money can only be used for building construction or maintenance, and the last attempt to pass such an increase in 2010 failed 56 percent to 44 percent. The last time voters in Sangamon County approved a referendum for District 186 was 31 years ago in 1984.
Preventing another crisis
Jennifer Gill took over as Springfield Public Schools superintendent in January 2014, at the tail end of the district’s budget cuts. A Springfield native educated at District 186, Gill has worked for the district in a variety of roles. She says the district has run balanced budgets the past two years due to cuts.
“We know that living fiscally lean is an important part of what we do right now, to maintain that balanced budget,” she said. “We have a goal to be always balanced and not spend beyond our means, even when those means have been significantly diminished. We understand that and we’re living within our means.”
Asked whether the district’s finances are stable, Gill says yes. Asked whether they’re adequate, she chuckles.
“No, we don’t feel like we’re adequately funded,” she said.
The cuts made over the past five years have left the district with aging equipment, buildings in need of maintenance, fewer teachers and fewer resources for important functions like helping homeless students or tutoring those who fall behind. The district is able to offer free breakfast and lunch to students in need, but only because of federal funding.
“What we want is the full adequacy that’s in the state (funding) formula,” Gill says. “That or a rethinking of how they’re funding state education.”
For two years, Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, has sponsored legislation in the General Assembly to make the state’s education funding formula more equitable. Currently, the formula does very little to account for the wide funding disparity between school districts with strong property tax bases and those without, many of which are in rural areas or inner cities. For example, Jennifer Gill says Springfield is unique in that roughly 40 percent of the properties in District 186 don’t pay property tax, because they belong to the state, a religious group or another tax-exempt organization.
Manar’s current bill, Senate Bill 316, lost a vote in the Senate after every Republican and a handful of politically vulnerable Democrats voted “present.” In addition to changing the education funding formula, the bill would have frozen property taxes for two years and would have provided money to Chicago Public Schools to make a pension payment. The bill’s defeat was largely due to the ongoing budget feud between the Republican Rauner administration and the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Absent any action from the state to fully fund schools or change the school funding formula, District 186 could find future stability in asking the public for more local property tax money through a referendum. However, both Jennifer Gill at District 186 and school board president Mike Zimmers say they’re not pushing for a referendum right now. Zimmers says he supports Manar’s legislation.
Scott McFarland at Invest in 186 says he doesn’t have much hope for a referendum right now, either. McFarland notes that voters in Decatur approved a school funding referendum the same night in 2010 that voters in Sangamon County rejected one. He said the difference is that organizers in Decatur had been building support for years. For now, McFarland is hoping for Manar’s bill to eventually pass.
“As long as you rely on property taxes to fund the bulk of education,” he said, “there are always going be haves and have-nots.”
Although voters in Sangamon County didn’t approve the one-percent sales tax referendum in 2010, a statewide advisory referendum on taxing the wealthy for education passed with strong support here in 2014. More than 62 percent of Sangamon County voters support implementing a three-percent tax on individual income over $1 million, with the proceeds going toward education. The nonbinding referendum received 63 percent support statewide.
Perceptions of District 186
There are a handful of perennial complaints about Springfield Public Schools: salaries are too high, there are too many middle managers, and the high schools are dirty and unsafe.
Data from the Illinois State Board of Education shows that average salaries are lower in Springfield than the state at large. The average teacher salary in District 186 was $56,468 in 2014, compared with the state average of $62,435. Administrators in District 186 make an average of $93,508, compared with $101,096 statewide.
The same data does show that District 186 spent slightly more of its budget on administration in 2013 – 5.3 percent in Springfield versus 3.3 percent statewide. However, Gill says the size and diversity of Springfield Public Schools requires a robust administrative team to run the district’s many programs. She also says the number of middle management positions has been reduced over the past four years.
“Come work in a school for a day,” Gill says. “They’ll enjoy and appreciate the middle manager when they’re having trouble. … We don’t hire people that are just sitting around.”
As for the district’s safety, Diamond Jackson, a 17-year-old senior at Southeast High School, says she feels safe at school. Jackson, the student member of the District 186 school board, points out the on-duty police providing security in the halls as she walks to her Advanced Placement psychology class. A song playing over the school’s speaker system warns students that only 30 seconds remain until they are tardy. The halls, which appear well-kept and free of trash, empty quickly as students scurry to class. Jackson’s psychology textbook is from 2007. She says most of her books are around the same age.
Jackson is a first-degree black belt in karate and a member of the National Honor Society. Her class schedule looks like a college course catalog: literature and composition, psychology, zoology of invertebrates and so on. She plans to attend college for dentistry, with a specialization in Spanish-speaking communities. She is organized, punctual, respectful and clearly college-ready. But what about her fellow seniors? Jackson estimates that three-fourths of them plan to attend college, and most of them are ready academically.
What effect the negative perceptions of Springfield Public Schools have on the public’s willingness to support the district through a local funding increase or other means is up for debate, but they likely don’t help. Regardless, McFarland says something needs to change.
“In the long term, we’re going to run into the same ebb and flow, where if we have another economic downturn, you’ll have to make the same cuts, except this time, they’re going to have to cut even deeper because we were never able to restore the cuts we made last time,” he said.
Asked why people without children or whose children are already grown should care about how the school district fares, McFarland says the success of District 186 is tied to the success of the city as a whole.
“I truly believe the district is the best resource Springfield has to prosper,” he said. “In order for the city to grow and be a place people want to live, we need to support our schools.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.
How property taxes are calculated
Each year, the district determines its “levy,” which is how much money it needs to seek from local property taxes. The levy is then divided by the community’s “equalized assessed value” – the total assessed value of all the property in the district – to obtain the rate that individual property owners must pay.
To determine the dollar amount a property owner pays, the property’s fair market value is divided by three, resulting in the “assessed value.” (Sometimes, the assessed value must be adjusted with a “multiplier” because of different assessment methods and changing real estate conditions.) Certain exemptions like the homestead exemption for primary residences are then applied to lower the property’s assessed value. The tax rate is then multiplied by the property’s assessed value after exemptions to get the total amount due.
Here’s a simple example for a hypothetical property with a fair market value of $100,000.
Step 1: The fair market value ($100,000) is divided by three to get the assessed value of $33,333.33.
Step 2: A “multiplier” is applied to make sure the assessed value equals one-third of the fair market value. For 2014, the multiplier is simply 1.
Step 3: Exemptions which lower the assessed value are applied. To keep things simple, we’ll assume this property has no exemptions.
Step 4: The tax rate is applied to the property’s assessed value after exemptions. In District 186, the 2014 rate of 5.165 percent means the hypothetical property owner would pay $1,721.67 toward the school district. ($33,333.33 x 0.05165 = $1,721.67)