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Lawmakers found more money for schools this year, but what about down the road?

Gov. Bruce Rauner gives a student a high five after signing an education funding reform bill at Ebinger Elementary School on Aug. 31, 2017. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

This is one of the best plans for school funding reform the state has ever passed. This is one of the most confusing things you will ever hear.

This is Illinois.

Before you get lost in the details, I’m eventually going to tell people in a few lucky school districts (especially in the south suburbs) how they may eventually claim millions in cash and give their taxpayers a break at the same time. Maybe. I hope.

OPINION

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column explaining how this state’s property tax system — our primary way of funding public schools — is one of the most unfair and discriminatory anyone could devise.

People who understood this set out to make it better. You may recall that in 2017, the state Legislature passed what many people called a historic school funding reform bill. The governor signed the bill into law.

I did not call the bill historic. In fact, I suggested it might be a hoax. That’s because although the measure provided a new way of distributing state money to schools, while making sure no school district lost money, the legislation did not provide a dedicated source of funding for the new scheme.

This is a state in financial crisis. So, without a dedicated source for this additional school funding, a new plan to redistribute the money is meaningless.

But our elected officials did find $350 million in additional money for schools this coming fiscal year.

As I understand it, $300 million of this money will be distributed using an evidence-based distribution system. In theory, the school districts with the fewest resources and the largest percentage of low-income children struggling to meet education standards will get some of that money.

I won’t attempt to explain the funding formula. It is very confusing. That’s how everything is designed in Illinois.

The fact that Illinois passed this “historic school funding” legislation received a lot of attention last year, but one part of the plan did not: the Property Tax Relief Pool Grants

Of the new revenue for schools, $50 million will be placed in this grant fund, which will be earmarked for school districts with the highest property tax rates. That grant money is specifically designed to be swapped out for property tax relief.

As I have noted repeatedly over the years, the school districts in Cook County with the highest property tax rates are mostly minority communities located in the south suburbs. These are communities with a very small commercial base and below-average home values. Homeowners in these areas are hit with high property tax rates to fund their schools — which have always been underfunded anyway.

To qualify for the property tax relief grant money, the school districts must apply to the state Board of Education.

The local school districts must agree to lower their property tax levies permanently to receive the state grants that, in theory, they will receive in perpetuity as part of their financial aid from the state. This grant program would, in theory, be available every year, creating a situation — again, in theory — in which the state would eventually pick up its fair share of school funding.

The property tax swaps will not be dollar-for-dollar, though. In some cases, school districts would lose money by accepting the grants.

But remember, these underfunded school districts will already be receiving more state aid than ever before, due to the evidence-based school funding formula put in place. The opportunity to obtain property tax relief grants is in addition to the overall change in school funding.

The problem here lies in the future, when the state may not have the money to meet its funding commitment.

The state board is supposed to soon release the list of school districts that have the highest property tax rates and will be eligible for the swap. The deadline to apply for funding is tentatively set for Oct. 1. The grants would be awarded in the spring of 2019.

But you have to apply, or you get no money.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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