Education funding, pensions highlight lawmakers' forum

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By La Risa Lynch

The length of the federal government's partial shutdown may have an effect on local school districts, including Oak Park's districts 97 and 200, say state elected officials representing the western suburb.

"Any federal funding the district gets could be in jeopardy, and any federal funding that flows through the state to the district could be in jeopardy," said state Sen. Don Harmon (39th), at an Oct. 7, forum with fellow lawmakers in Oak Park.

"It depends on how long we are in this state, and the longer we are in it the more risk we are," added state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th).

The shutdown was among the topics broached at Wednesday's forum at Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.

D97's legislative ad hoc committee CLAIM (Committee for Legislative Action, Intervention and Monitoring) sponsored the event. Joining Lilly and Harmon were state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th) and state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th). The Oak Park lawmakers were questioned on a variety of issues from the audience.

Early childhood education funding, data-sharing among school districts and unfunded education mandates highlighted the forum. The state's pension crisis was another hot topic. Neither the House nor Senate pension bills are viable options, Harmon noted.

A General Assembly conference committee is working on legislation but lawmakers will have to wait to see if that's a viable option, Harmon said. That bill would refine the cost of living adjustment, or COLA, that would adjust with inflation. Harmon said he is hopeful that that proposal is something both chambers can agree with.

While the state is in a budget crisis, Lightford noted that early childhood education funding remained the same.

"There was no growth but there was also no decrease in funding, which is good news," she said.

Lightford, however, cautioned in attaching the phrase "unfunded mandates" to some state initiatives. Efforts to decrease the school enrollment age of children from seven to six could appear to be a mandate, Lightford said. But such a requirement does not impose a negative impact on schools, she stressed, even though it may increase student enrollment. The measure, she stressed, ensures "all kids are in school learning at the proper age….It depends on the context for me in terms of the definition what is an unfunded mandate."

The Oak Park lawmakers answered submitted written questions from the audience.

Better lunches and funding for college were concerns submitted by some Julian eighth-graders. Ford commended Oak Park for banning trans-fat food and urged students to make recommendations to improve lunch menus.

Lightford also urged student council leaders to "draft legislation" to present to district superintendents on why menus should be changed, making sure to explain why one menu would be better over another rather than complaining that the food is bad.

For lowering college costs, Ford stressed the importance of doing well in school in order to attain college grants and scholarships. The monetary award program (MAP) grant is another way to pay for college, Ford said. But Lightford noted that the state's fiscal challenges impact the number of MAP grants available. Lilly cited her work in maintaining state funding to community colleges in order for those institutions to keep tuition low.

La Risa Lynch

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