Ill. school funding system produces vastly disparate levels of s - FOX 32 News Chicago

Ill. school funding system produces vastly disparate levels of spending

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

They are the most fiercely fought-over questions in Illinois politics. And they help to explain other fights, including the current battle over the state income tax. When it comes to public school funding, who should pay? And, how much is enough?

The answer at Glenbrook South and its District 225 sister school, Glenbrook North, is property taxpayers.

Of the $21,841 spent last year on each pupil, 94 percent came from local property owners.

That's far more than in the average Illinois school district, where local taxpayers provide 66 percent of school budgets, the state 26 percent, federal support 8 percent.

So what do they get for all that taxpayer money?

“I mean, just recently, we got our floor redone in the main gym. We got a new pool. And, like, all the technology. We have, like, access to tons of resources. It's really nice,” said Nicholas Schurer, a junior at Glenbrook South.

“We just got a new turf last year for football and for lacrosse. And then also we have a new library, textbooks, Chromebooks, computers, bunch of new technology. All a bunch of new resources, so, really good,” said Sammy Kouriabalis, a junior at Glenbrook South.

Eighty-two percent of graduates are considered college-ready at Glenbrook South and North. Despite the lavish homes, with some of the biggest property tax bills in Illinois, 15 percent of students do come from low-income families.

Glenbrook spends 50 percent more per pupil than the $14,306 at south suburban Joliet's High School District 204. Here, 60 percent are low income and only 26 percent of graduates are considered college-ready. Joliet Central is still home to the "Steelmen" but the district's property tax collections have been hit hard by the loss of all the town's once-thriving steel mills and other factories. They used to pay millions of dollars in local taxes.

A parent at Joliet's Washington Junior High complained that his kids are missing out on courses he feels helped prepare him for a job.

“When I went here, we had wood shop. We had economics, home things, metal shop, and things of that nature. But, right now, we don't have that anymore,” said a parent of a Washington Junior High student, who wished not to be identified.

FOX 32 learned Washington School does have laptop computers for students to use in the building. The principal declined to talk to us.

As for High School District 204, the retired business manager told us it still provides a good education. He wishes they had more resources.

Richard Pagliaro, Retired Joliet H.S. School District 204: “I think there are many programs right now that the district would like to offer to the students that they can't,” said Richard Pagliaro, a retiree of District 204.

Elgin's Unit District 46 is Illinois' largest outside Chicago. It's one of the few that, like the big city, educates from pre-kindergarten through high school. Sixty percent of students are low-income while one-quarter speak only limited English.

It spends $9,661 per pupil, less than the statewide average $11,842. Less too than Chicago's $13,433.

There are schools that prove money's not everything, nor even the most important thing.

At the intersection of Will, Kendall and Grundy Counties, the rapidly growing Minooka School District 201 runs seven elementary schools.

They spend an average $7,495 per student, among the very lowest of any grade school district in Illinois.

Still, Walnut Trails Elementary in Shorewood and other District 201 schools have been honored five years in a row with Bright Star Awards, for achieving academic excellence on relatively small budgets.

The secret to their success? In large part, they say it's parental involvement.

The schools here report 100 percent of parents are involved in their children's education.

“I'm really proud. It's an award our kids have worked hard for. Our children have done tremendous work. Certainly our staff and our parents have worked hard for. But the reality is we're very efficient in our school district,” said Albert Gegenheimer, Minooka District 201 superintendent.

They've had no choice. District 201's total real estate values crashed in the recession from about $900 million to about $700 million. As property tax collections fell short, one budget cutting strategy was to increase class size, especially in junior high. It's now far above the statewide average of about 22 students.

We've got class sizes on average at our junior high school of about 33 to 34 students in a class,” Gegenheimer said. “That is high. And there's no research anywhere that says that's good for teaching and learning.”

District 201's lean budget might be a model for a research group founded by Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist. It found that, from 1992 to 2009, Illinois's student population grew 14.3 percent and the number of teachers by 21.5 percent. But administrators and other non-teaching staff grew 35.9 percent. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice estimated top-heavy hiring cost Illinois taxpayers $750 million a year.

Chicago Public Schools, for example, claim to have cut central office staff by 34 percent since 2009. Budget documents indicate 20,000 non-teachers remain on the payroll, nearly as numerous as CPS's 22,000 teachers. A rare point of agreement between the Teachers Union and conservative critics is what should happen to many of those non-classroom personnel.

“Let go vast swathes of the administration bloat and just cut spending,” said Bruno Behrend of “It's not that the bureaucrats, or the people doing the bureaucracy are bad people. It's just that they're not necessary.”

Trimming fat could free up some money. But it won't quiet the loud debate over what's fair in funding our public schools.

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