Illinois State Board of Education members kicked off a series of public
hearings Monday in Chicago as they prepared to navigate another dire
budget year.

Illinois State Board of Education members kicked off a series of public hearings Monday in Chicago as they prepared to navigate another dire budget year.

ISBE chairman Jesse Ruiz asked those testifying to offer their opinions about two problem areas. what he and his board members should do.

The state is expected to have a budget shortfall of as much as $9 billion in 2011-2012 and ISBE will most likely be asked to cut its budget significantly. Ruiz wanted to know whether the board should continue to give top priority to the general state aid and funding mandatory categorical programs, such as special education and transportation.

Also, the state is significantly behind in paying its bills. Ruiz asked what the state board can do to help local districts deal with this situation.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said that ultimately the board  needs to push for a tax increase. He said that Illinois is a low-taxing state and, if it taxes like Indiana does, it would have another $8 billion to work with.

Cutting is not an option, he said. Nine out of 10 state dollars go to one of four areas — : education, health care, human services and public safety – all of which are important for children.

“Sick kids don’t learn, hungry kids don’t learn,” he said.

But Dea Myers, vice president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, said:  “There is no way that you are not going to have to cut.” The board of education must set priorities,  she said.

Myers also said  the next governor and the state legislature must pass additional pension reforms and limit the amount of healthcare it provides retirees for free. She said Illinois owes too much money to its retirees, and that’s got to change so that more of the state’s revenue can go to support services.

Other speakers advocated for their specific causes. Supporters of bilingual education and early childhood—two categorical areas that took a hit this past year—came to urge board members to restore funding. The American Publishers Association was on hand to complain about the state’s text book loan program losing all of its funding.

Also, an organization that provides instructional material for blind and visually impaired students said they haven’t been able to get any new equipment because their budget has been stagnant.

And David Sinski, executive director from After School Matters, which provides Chicago teenagers after school programs, came to tell board members that his program has been losing money and therefore can offer young people fewer opportunities.

Ruiz noted that many of the programs sounded good, but that the problem was money. “Where are we going to get it?” he asked.

The next public hearing is Oct. 27 in Springfield and then, in November, there are hearings in Mundelein, Belleville, DeKalb and Champaign.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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