ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Education finance issues still linger 67 years later
by Burt McRoy
Burt McRoy was chairman of IASB’s Tri-County Division, which consisted of Cook, DuPage and Lake counties in the mid-1940s. He prepared this report for the May 16, 1946, Tri-County Division dinner meeting. The report was reprinted in the August 5, 1946, issue of the School Board News Bulletin, with a preface by Robert M. Cole, IASB’s first executive director, July 1, 1943 to January 1, 1969.
This report is sent to you because it raises some fundamental issues about the financing of public education in Illinois and the future policies of our Association.
Most of us who served on school boards during the last depression will not forget the financial headaches which we nursed. Have we any assurance that those headaches will not return?
Burt McRoy, retiring chairman of the Tri-County Division, does not have all of the answers, but in his report he states a positive belief that board members and administrators could cure public school financial ills if they will. What do you think?
Robert M. Cole, executive director, IASB
This being my final meeting as chairman of the executive committee of Tri-County, I feel an urge, as well as some obligation, to report to you on the progress of our Association. The chairman receives no compensation, but perhaps he earns the right to make a few remarks based on his experience.
If we add up all of the individual abilities contributing to the administration of education in Illinois — the school boards, the administrators, the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the county superintendents, the educational departments of the great universities and the teachers’ colleges — it is difficult to believe that we have been unable to make any fundamental improvement in the educational system in Illinois. Our failure does not result from any lack of agreement on objectives, but rather the lack of leadership, organization and determination.
Much of our needed leadership can be supplied by the school administrators, not as an organization but as individuals acting within their own school boards. The administrators, as an organization, will always be limited in their effectiveness because of a natural public suspicion of self-interest. Individually, however, they can, if they will, stimulate almost every school board in this state and thereby wield a tremendous influence for a better system of education in Illinois.
The members of school boards must come to realize the need for statewide improvements in our educational system. School boards are so occupied in solving their own district problems that they have no time for state problems — and yet it is the state problems which are causing the district problems.
Board members must also realize that the pressure of their personal affairs and the transient nature of their tenure have prevented them from giving the continuity of leadership which we need. This leadership must be supplied by full-time representatives so that the whole program for a better educational system in Illinois will be carried on unaffected by the turnover of individual members. The limited and brief experience of our Association in the past two years, with a full time staff of only two men, is a small sample of what we can accomplish.
It was just three years ago this spring that several of us submitted to the executive committee of Tri-County a plan to make the Illinois Association of School Boards a vital factor in the improvement of the system of education in this state. It was our belief that school boards could be a strong influence in the advancement of education in Illinois.
We believed that school boards were in need of much greater service and would readily support a program which rendered real value. The executive committee agreed to make a start — in a small way — twice what some thought was possible and about one-tenth of our proposed plan. Nevertheless, it was a start, and the next fall the state convention of our Association unanimously approved an increase in the dues.
Since that date, in only 30 months to be exact, we have replaced a part-time secretary with an executive director and a field secretary, both on full time; we have had both a school building consultant and a legal counsel on part time. We have increased the active membership of the Association from 600 school boards to over 900 school boards and have made the annual convention too large for the city of Springfield.
We have created regional organizations of school boards, such as the Blackhawk Division in Rock Island and Moline, which is already challenging the best efforts of our own Tri-County — and we have been responsible for reorganizing a national association of school boards with a potential of 400,000 school board members.
While no one person or organization can properly claim credit for favorable legislation, we were able to participate on a full-time basis in the last legislative program — the most successful on record for public schools, including the greatest increase in appropriation for state aid — adoption of a school code — and continuance of the county surveys for school reorganization.
Our executive director and our field secretary will this year participate in over 250 general meetings of school board members and will personally discuss special problems with at least 700 of our 900 member boards. In the past two months alone, they have covered over 10,000 miles in the state of Illinois.
We have rejuvenated the School Board Journal, published four study pamphlets specially written to the intelligence of board members, and are now rendering a fast news bulletin service supplying the latest information on school problems to over 6,000 board members and officials throughout the state.
Here in Tri-County we tackled the giant problem of railroad tax objections, and have recently reached a written agreement with representatives of the railroads — an agreement which should be the basis for mutual understanding and the saving of thousands of dollars to schools. We have grown from one dinner meeting a year to a banquet and five conferences three times a year, and increased our attendance from 150 to over 500.
Yet the fundamental fault of our educational system in Illinois remains untouched: the financial insecurity of the school revenue. True, we have had an increase in state aid and a further approach to equalization, but the greater part of the school revenue still depends on local real estate taxes, with the ever present threat of changes in assessed values and costly legal proceedings from tax objectors. Our efforts thus far have been limited to plugging the leaks and patching the cracks — but we need a new foundation for school revenue — a foundation which will guarantee financial security from one year to the next.
There seems to be a general impression that schools are enjoying a long awaited popularity, that referendums to build new schools and increase tax rates will be approved with little opposition, and that more and more money is available for teachers’ salaries.
Some persons are looking forward to Full Valuation under the Butler Bills as the real Promised Land. But do we know just how much money we can count on for the next five years? We have studied the law and we have our own interpretation, but there are other interpretations. Are you certain just what your school’s income will be? Would you personally guarantee it? And yet you must plan a program, and sign contracts based on that income. What then, if you don’t receive it?
(Editor’s note 2013: The Butler Bills, which went into effect January 1, 1946, required that assessed valuations would be the full, fair cash value or 100 percent and all tax rates would be cut in half, with certain limitations that would remain in place for five years unless the Bills were amended. The complex system took five pages to explain in the December 22, 1945, issue of the School Board News Bulletin, and the impact was addressed frequently in subsequent issues.)
Some improvement in school income should be no surprise with the national income at an all-time high. But when the retraction starts, the first popular cry is for a reduction in taxes, and, particularly, local taxes. The danger in our educational system today is that we are planning better schools and raising professional salaries, but without one single assurance that the income on which this program must rely will be available to us in the future. We are rebuilding on the same revenue foundation which was washed away in the last depression.
The Chicago schools with their 400,000 children receive under a special law an annual levy in dollars guaranteed by the state legislature and known as the “pegged levy.” No matter what happens to assessed valuations or tax rates, the schools of Chicago are assured this income and can plan their programs accordingly. If the state legislature can provide this financial security for the 400,000 school children in the city of Chicago, why should they not provide the same financial security for the 765,000 school children in the rest of Illinois?
We can achieve this financial security whenever we are strong enough in leadership and organization to combat the inertia of people as well as the malicious self-interests that block improvement and thrive on the disorganization of our educational system. An association of the school boards in this state could be one of the most influential factors in legislation in the state of Illinois — because school board members generally are locally elected officials representing the majority of non-partisan voters in their community. Such an association, adequately financed, properly staffed, and supported by the school administrators, could accomplish any reasonable objective in improving the educational system, even a new foundation for school revenues and financial security.
There is great strength in the local control of our schools, but there is also a great weakness, and that is the inability of one school district to protect itself against events over which it has no control. Only through an association of our school districts can we obtain sufficient strength to protect each district — an association strong enough to match any political or economic pressure which endangers the operation of those schools — an association not for the purpose of running education in the state of Illinois, but for the purpose of obtaining a sound foundation for school revenues so that the educational system can run equally well in all districts in all years.
This is the nine-tenths of the plan which the executive committee once hesitated to propose and which some of us feel can no longer be postponed. We have demonstrated in the past two years what can be accomplished, but this is a small part of the job ahead. Our present contribution to the association will not accomplish our objectives or solve our fundamental problems.
We believe any amount would be a small cost for the achievement of a sound foundation of school revenues. Why not lick the financial problem once and for all — and get on with the education? We had better lick the financial problem soon because the present economic conditions may change suddenly and the local school districts will be fighting for existence — and local control may pass forever.
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