Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for September 3, 2006

From the Southern Illinoisan...

Education to weigh heavily on November race


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a four-part series on Southern Illinois issues and the gubernatorial campaign. The series will run the first Sunday of each month until the Nov. 7 election. Today, the candidates discuss education and higher education. Next, on Oct. 1, the debate will focus on Medicaid and medical care.


As Gov. Rod Blagojevich surveyed the interior of the Carterville high school this week, he was looking at the physical manifestation of an undeniable fact: Southern Illinois schools need help.

The high school, built in 1924, is one of several local schools in need of repair or outright construction on a new building. And now that the governor has seen it in person, Carterville is at the top of the list, so he said. Yet the list of Southern Illinois districts also in need of new facilities, includes Benton, Du Quoin, Johnston City, and Creal Springs.

Similar scenarios can be found in communities throughout the state, and they all can be attributed to the fact the general assembly hasn't passed a school construction plan in years. Whose fault it is depends on who you ask.

If anything, Blagojevich can't be faulted for not trying.

"I have been working really hard to get a billion dollars into our schools, unfortunately our Republican colleagues didn't vote for our school construction plan," he said when asked about the lack of funds for local schools recently. "I think they were more interested in partisan politics than getting something done. We will get that done."


The Blagojevich plan for education entails a $10 billion lease of the state lottery, a measure that would inject extra funds into state education coffers for four years, giving money for facilities and expanded education initiatives in K-12. The administration already touts itself as the first to put the most money into education without raising taxes on Illinois citizens and says the new plan follows the same tradition.

While Blagojevich calls his plan bold, Republican gubernatorial challenger Judy Baar Topinka calls it something else.

"That is just a dopey plan, plain and simple," she said. "I think anyone who has looked at it sees that. Selling off the lottery is just not a plan. On the fifth year your lottery is gone, it's not generating any money and we've lost a state asset. If that's the best he can do, I think there is a problem."

Topinka said the primary problem she and most state Republicans have had with the governor's education initiatives have been the lack of a stable funding source. Under her education plan, the state would utilize the one remaining license to establish a casino in Chicago expected to generate $3 billion for education. Topinka's plan also tries to move Illinois education away from a reliance on property taxes with a two-year holiday for property owners.

"I know for two years we can accommodate the cost of it," Topinka said. "That gives us two years to bring all our education gurus together and get this ship moving from property tax onto something else, but that is yet to be discussed."

Whichever plan is truly better, both leave room for considerable debate in the legislature.

Randy Dunn, the state superintendent who was appointed by Blagojevich when he reorganized the state board of education, said the construction issue is one that can't seem to make it past Springfield politics.

"I have yet to talk to a legislator that really doesn't think (construction) shouldn't happen, but then it starts to break down when it comes time for a vote," Dunn said. "There are competing interests vying for votes in Springfield that I'm not privy to. This seems to be something they can rally around, but in my view, this is something we should set aside from the wheeling and dealing; then they can trade votes on other issues."

Democratic State Sen. Gary Forby, who's strongly supported Blagojevich's capital campaign for schools, indicated money should be no object when considering the welfare of school children.

"You can go back to George Ryan's day with Illinois FIRST funding," Forby said. "They said they had funding for it; they didn't have funding for it. We'll find money for schools. We have to do that and we will do that. Funding is not an issue with me. There's money out there, we'll find it, and we'll make it work. That's why we go to Springfield, to make sure the kids get the education they deserve."

For Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney, issuing bonds is not out of line for the purpose of addressing needed school construction, but he added the state must also deal with the operating budget deficit to ensure they aren't leaving future generations unduly burdened.

"I think it's irresponsible to be issuing bonds on construction without addressing the operating budget, because that means future generations will be stuck with bigger bills down the road," Whitney said.

That said, Whitney believes the state is generally falling about $3 billion short in construction bonds to address the total $6.7 billion needed to adequately maintain schools, as outlined by the most recent capital development board survey.

"I don't think we're in a position to reach the $6.7 billion, but I think we need to approach something closer to $5 billion," he said.