This column originally appeared in the Chronicle’s June 16 print edition.
Down here in Munchkin Land we mostly mind our own business.
Sure, we know the world around us is big and exciting, and the Yellow Brick Road can take us to innumerable adventures. Some of us have even been to the Emerald City. We have all heard the stories. One of our neighbors takes the trip, stays for a few days, then scurries back to the safety of our miniature Munchkin lifestyle.
We like it that way.
It’s much too easy to draw parallels between The Wizard of Oz and the current state of Illinois politics. With us, of course, in the minor role of the singing, dancing Munchkins.
Like the Munchkins, we do our best to keep smiling while the world around is totally nuts. You know. Belligerent talking trees. Flying monkeys. Witches. A total disconnect from reality. At least the Munchkins have a well-kept town with a local government that appears to function efficiently.
Here we are, the little folks who keep our noses to the grindstones and try to never, ever cause trouble. And there they are — the Emerald City bureaucrats, the witches, the mighty wizard himself.
In Illinois, we’ve just been treated to another total disconnect from reality. We are starting our second year with no state budget. Since the budget impasse began in the spring of 2015, most government operations have continued, largely because the courts won’t allow them to shut down. The exception is in social services, many of which are suffering badly; some of the state’s most vulnerable residents were the biggest losers in Year One of the budget crisis.
Year Two is here and the stakes have escalated in this latest round of high-stakes chicken. The May 31 deadline passed with no budget from the General Assembly in Springfield, not even a compromise to fund public education like the one that was approved a year ago. This time, it appears that school children are becoming the pawns as the Statehouse powers-that-be play with the future of Illinois.
It’s enough to make a Munchkin blow his top. As anyone who lives in Homewood and Flossmoor knows, you don’t mess with the schools. In our particular corner of Munchkin Land, the schools are our pride and joy. They are the cornerstones of our H-F community. We know the value of a first-rate education and our schools have been providing that for generations.
As of right now, the General Assembly is not even close to approving state funding for the schools. This is the time of year that our three school districts are fine-tuning their budgets for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The budgets need to be approved by September so that our schools can start collecting property tax money next year.
I spoke with officials from Flossmoor District 161 and Homewood District 153 and was told that there is no chance that schools won’t open this fall because of the state’s budget crisis. That’s the good news — well, sort of. If the worst case scenario transpires this summer and the General Assembly does not fund the schools, both districts will take a serious financial hit. District 153, in particular, could feel the effects for several years.
In March, voters in District 153 overwhelmingly approved a bond issue, not to exceed $9.5 million, that will fund operations in the schools for the next five years. If there’s no state funding in the coming year, money from that bond issue will be used right away to keep the schools open, said District 153 Business Manager John Gibson.
“That would have a huge negative impact on our future finances,” Gibson said. “It would not be a good thing any way you look at it.”
District 161 has sufficient reserves to cover the loss of state aid in the coming year. Superintendent Craig Doster said the state impasse is causing confusion on the local level as district officials try to put together the year’s most important financial document. With no firm numbers from the state, Doster said, school business officials have to guess at some of the figures going into their budgets.
State aid only makes up a portion of the revenues that fund local education. Last year, District 161 approved a total budget of nearly $32 million, with $23 million coming from local sources — mostly property taxes — and $6.4 million coming from the state. District 153’s budget had $16.6 million in revenues for education, with $10.8 million from local sources and $4.5 million from the state. Federal resources account for a small percentage of revenues in local school budgets.
The general assumption is that the two main opponents in the budget impasse – Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan — will reach some kind of compromise so that the schools can be funded, even if the rest of the budget impasse continues.
I don’t have enough space to get into the causes of the budget crisis. It’s easy enough to get details on the power struggle between Rauner, the multimillionaire who wants to impose his “my way or the highway” reforms, and Madigan, the undisputed master of Illinois politics for three decades.
Suffice it to say they both fit nicely into the Wizard of Oz scenario.
If you’re casting this classic story, Madigan is a natural for the Wizard. He’s had the power for years, and has created an illusion of effective state governance, all while he’s behind the curtain pulling the controls.
I can’t decide if Rauner fits best as the Scarecrow or the Tin Man. On one hand, we are supposed to be impressed by his smarts, but he really doesn’t seem to have a brain for governing. Meanwhile, based on his apparent willingness to deep-six social services in this state — and now, perhaps, the schools — we already know he has no heart.