Robert G. Grossi, Bloom Township School Treasurer.
WHY SCHOOL DISTRICTS IN THE SOUTH TRIAD OF COOK COUNTY ARE THE MOST ECONOMICALLY CHALANGED IN THE STATE
As we know, there is a great disparity of wealth between school districts throughout the State of Illinois. While the current funding formula guarantees that all school districts have at least $4,425 in revenues supporting each child, the range in revenues amongst the 900 school districts in this state varies from $4,500 per kid to over $20,000 per kid. There is no question that where a child lives is a relevant factor in determining his or her chances to succeed in life. This is an unfortunate reality that exists in our State.
Since there is such a disparity in property wealth amongst the school districts in this State, and since there is such a disparity in income levels amongst the children in this State, we have a formula that attempts to bring the "have nots" closer to the "haves". The current funding formula does a good job in achieving this objective, but certainly, more has to be done.
As we look to creating a funding system in this State, our emphasis will be more on those Districts that have only $5,000 to provide an education to a child verses those Districts that have $20,000 to educate each child. Our emphasis will be more on those school districts that have broken windows in their classrooms verses those districts that don't have the latest version of Windows in their computers.
There are many school districts throughout this State that are underfunded and are experiencing financial and academic difficulties as a result. Often when I am in Springfield, I hear problems of the many struggling school districts in downstate Illinois. These problems are certainly legitimate and need to be addressed.
There are many school districts in the South Triad of Cook County that are funded at the same level as the poorest of school districts in the State. In fact, of the 30 poorest school districts in the State with an ADA of over 1,000, 20% are in the South Triad.
While many of our school districts are funded at the same levels as the poorest of school districts in South Triad of Cook County being in the most economically challenged area in the entire State of Illinois.
While the perception of Cook and the Collar Counties to many people is that of significant wealth and opportunities, much of this area, particularly in teh South Triad is anything but wealthy. In fact, the poorest city in the United States is South Triad. Over 11% of the schools in the South Triad have a low-income count of over 20% and if the free and reduced lunch figure were used to determine poverty levels, over 30% of our Districts would be described as poor.
Why are these districts more economically challenged than other poor districts creates a competition for labor that forces school districts to either pay salaries that cannot be afforded, or incur a turnover in labor, particularly quality labor that deprives the students of a quality education.
There are 1.8 million children attending school in our State. Although the State of Illinois encompasses an area of over 55,000 square miles, over one-third of all school districts and over one-half of all students in the entire State are located within thirty-five miles of the South Triad of Cook County. Within this radius, total revenues range from $4,800 per pupil to over $20,000 per pupil. Naturally, the range in teachers' salaries is equally wide.
The competition for labor in this area is fierce. This level of competition creates problems that are unique in our State. Many of the school districts in our area lost over 10% of their labor force this year to school districts paying higher salaries.
Imagine this panel being the Board of Education of one of these school districts. You just completed the last fiscal year of your teachers' contract, and you are currently in negotiations for the next three years' contract. Your business manager tells you that your District incurred a $500,000 deficit last year and you can't afford to offer the teachers any more than a 3% increase over the next three years. If the Board decides to give the teachers more than 3%, the District will run out of money and be forced to borrow using the little amount of borrowing authority the District has remaining. You as the Board of Education are reluctant to borrow again since you borrowed three times in the last eight years and the District's tax rate is already one of the highest in the State.
Your Superintendent then tells you that without a significant increase in salaries, she projects that the district will lose another 15% of the entire teaching staff, as it did last year. These teachers are going to the neighboring districts and will make $10,000 more than they are currently making. The school districts are so close that the teachers wouldn't even have to relocate to change jobs. The teachers that she projects will leave are quality, innovative teachers that will be sorely missed. She tells the Board that she is tired of the district being a training ground for good quality teachers. The Superintendent also informs you that because your starting teachers salary is so low, she doubts that she could fill all the missing positions. This is because the projected teacher shortage is in a crisis mode due to the large quantity of teachers leaving to take early retirement. She reminds the Board that in a labor shortage crisis, salaries are going to be driven up making in more difficult for them to compete for the few teachers available. If she can't hire the teachers, class sizes will be hirer than what she believes is necessary to provide the necessary level of education to the students, especially since the district has such a high percentage of low income children.
The teacher's union then informs you that they want an 8% increase because the surrounding school districts are paid significantly more than them, their class sizes are larger than the other districts and they are working with children that require additional assistance because they came to their school with fewer skills than those other districts.
How do you, as the Board of Education, solve this problem? Do you do what is fiscally right and provide what you know is a below quality level of education? Do you consciously provide to your students larger than desired class sizes, no reading and speech specialists, and a transient and inexperienced teaching staff knowing that you just decreased the probability of that child succeeding in life? Or do you do what is fiscally wrong and pay salaries at a level necessary to retain quality teachers, pay specialists what the wealthier district get the attention they need to give them a chance to succeed?
The question should not be how do you solve the problem, but why should you, as the Board of Education of a school district in the State of Illinois have to solve the problem.
Unfortunately, this problem is going to get even worse. These same school districts are running out of borrowing authority, the shortage in teachers throughout this State is getting worse, and the disparity in financial and academic wealth in this area is getting greater.
As this panel is preparing to recommend a solution to solving the funding problem in this great State, I urge you to always consider the impact of your recommendations on the South Triad of Cook County, for in this area are the most economically challenged school ,districts in the State. Solve the problems in the South Triad, and you will solve the problems throughout the State.