BROWN: Downstate knows more about its schools than first lady does

SHARE BROWN: Downstate knows more about its schools than first lady does

Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner speaks to the City Club of Chicago last month. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner went back to the well Tuesday, pulling out a new digital ad from his wife to try to revive his withered credentials as a champion of education.

I really don’t want to attack a politician’s spouse, even when he shamelessly uses her front and center to give him political cover.

We saw this act in 2014. If folks haven’t figured out the name of that tune by now, shame on them.

Instead, let me ask you who is more likely to have the better understanding of what’s at stake for the schoolchildren of Illinois in Rauner’s forthcoming battle over school funding legislation.


Do you think it’s Diana Rauner or Mike Gauch, the school superintendent in Harrisburg?

Do you think it’s Mrs. Rauner or Jennifer Garrison, the school superintendent in Sandoval?

Do you think it’s Mrs. Rauner or Chuck Lane, school superintendent in Centralia?

How about Mrs. Rauner or Ralph Grimm, recently retired school superintendent in Galesburg?

Gauch, Garrison, Lane and Grimm each told me in recent interviews that they support Senate Bill 1, the school funding formula bill that Rauner says he will veto as soon as legislators give it to him.

I previously told you about Rolf Sivertsen, the school superintendent in Canton.

Each of these Downstate superintendents says the school funding bill is a long overdue fix that will more fairly treat children in school districts all across the state, starting with their own.

The governor says it is a “Chicago bailout” because the state will take responsibility for funding Chicago teacher pensions, as has long been the case for suburban and Downstate teachers.

These school superintendents know what’s in the bill, including the Chicago pension provision, and they still support it. They think it’s good for their communities.

“People that have been working on this bill for years don’t think it’s a bailout,” said Harrisburg’s Gauch, who admits he’s received lots of criticism in his community for not embracing Rauner’s us-against-them narrative.

Gauch said kids in his small town have more in common demographically with students in Chicago than with kids in the suburbs, which is why they benefit from the new formula.

“I don’t want to get into ZIP code politics. I want every student to be treated the same,” said Gauch, who expects his district to receive an additional $753,000 in state funding from Senate Bill 1.

Gauch said Harrisburg schools must borrow against their anticipated local property tax collections to open on time next month. But he said they won’t be able to stay open past the middle of October without state aid, which can’t be distributed without a new funding formula in place.

Sandoval’s Garrison presides over a small rural school district in Marion County with a high percentage of its 500 students living below the poverty line.

The Sandoval school district is in such dire financial straits that it plans a GoFundMe campaign to help solve an Environmental Protection Agency issue, Garrison said.

Garrison said her schools may not be able to open on time next month without the scheduled state aid payment. Even if they do open, they would have to close by Labor Day if state funds aren’t distributed, she said.

Of Senate Bill 1, she says simply: “It is fair.”

As to the governor’s plan, she told me, “It’s not politically viable.”

Rauner has yet to reveal the details of his own proposal, although in broad strokes he has indicated it would take money earmarked for Chicago and redistribute it to other school districts.

Centralia’s Lane acknowledges his district might get more money from Rauner’s plan, but says, “That’s not fair.”

Plus, he adds, the governor can’t pass his plan.

Mrs. Rauner wants to protect her husband’s reputation—and her own. But there are other voices to consider.

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