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Longo: Our desperate need for leadership in state government

Longo

Longo

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:41AM



Leaders lead, if not inspire, solve problems and provide a road map for the future. By that definition, there are few, if any, in state government in Illinois.

The governor and the two Chicago Democrats who control the Legislature would like you to believe that if most of the financing for pensions for suburban and downstate teachers were shifted from the state to local school districts, the state’s pension crisis largely would be solved. Not so, fellas.

Let’s begin with the big picture: There is no real fiscal or economic plan for Illinois. School districts throughout the state are not wallowing in mounds of money. They continue to be underfunded in spite of a national upturn in the economy.

School districts are compelled to prospectively plan for their future. Using a financial planning model, districts project revenue and expenditures just as one would plan a household budget. This concept is totally foreign in Springfield.

By law, there are specific benchmarks for the state to finance public education, but the state continues to fall short of them, while imposing more unfunded mandates on school districts and their taxpayers. Illinois is an embarrassing 50th out of 50 states in funding public education.

As an example, districts will get only from 85 percent to 89 percent of their general state aid this school year.

School transportation is expected to take another financial hit from the state, leaving more parents scrambling to get their children to school. And programs for disabled children remain woefully underfunded by federal and state sources, requiring school districts to assume more of the costs of educating them.

Unfair funding for public education continues to be the norm in a property-tax-supported system that sees the Chicago Public Schools get a disproportionate share of funds compared with suburban and downstate school districts. The charter school movement, so popular among social conservatives and rooted in big-money politics, draws increasingly on public school districts’ funds for what are sold as private schools.

Education is the great equalizer in our society, so where is the vision for the future for Illinois and its public schoolchildren? Where are the plans for fiscal viability for the state? Where is the commitment to equal education for all children and thereby helping to revitalize our communities?

We are in need of a graduated income tax structure and revenue streams that give relief to taxpayers, improve the state’s fiscal health and provide jobs and needed programs and resources for our citizens. A solid financial and business plan that outlines the future for Illinois is an imperative.

Under the current, flat-rate system, low- and middle-income families carry a greater income tax burden than our wealthier residents. A graduated income tax is more fair because it taxes based on earned income and ability to pay. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan research organization, says a graduated tax would mean about $2.4 billion more in annual state revenue and a reduced tax for 94 percent of taxpayers.

Illinois lags behind most states in imposing a service tax. Conservative estimates are that such a tax would bring in more than $3 billion in new money to the Illinois economy each year.

New businesses create jobs and provide opportunities for economic growth in areas such as the Southland that were hardest hit by the recent recession. When businesses fail, homeowners are forced to pick up the burden, further depleting households’ expendable income. Cook County should adopt a more accurate and transparent property assessment system.

Illinois’ much-publicized pension funding problems were created over many years by the gross failure by legislators to meet the state’s legal obligation to fully fund its five pension systems. As educators, we believe there must be comprehensive and fair pension reform. The insistence by some legislative leaders to burden school districts with additional pension costs is not a viable option unless it is done responsibly and fairly and provides new revenue to help districts cover those costs.

If such a cost shift is approved, there must be an extended phase-in period to allow school districts to prepare and budget for the additional expense, aided by corresponding higher revenue and property tax relief.

The time is long overdue for the Illinois Legislature to stop the petty political games and address the serious financial problems, in public education and beyond, that are dragging down our state and creating an undesirable image as a place to work and reside.

Our leaders really have little choice — they must offer a vision for Illinois while also providing for new revenue and controlling spending. That’s the right equation to ensure a more confident future for our citizens, business community and schools.

Margaret W. Longo is superintendent of Forest Ridge Elementary School District 142 in Oak Forest. She can be reached at mlongo@d142.org.



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