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Local

Evidence points to less money: New state funding formula could cut into schools’ bottom lines

Fewer students are enrolled across the Sauk Valley now than 10 years ago, and that eventually could hurt schools’ bottom lines.

The old general state aid formula is being replaced this year by something called evidence-based funding. Signed into law last year, its goal is to create a more equitable funding model for school districts, to ensure that the poorest districts get enough money to educate their students.

The old formula doled out money based on daily attendance; the new formula is based on enrollment – the more students a district has, the more money needed to educate them – and on factors such as property values and how many students live in poverty or have limited English proficiency.

Sterling, Rock Falls High School and Dixon district numbers are down: 23 fewer students than in 2008 in Sterling, 194 fewer in Rock Falls and 231 fewer in Dixon.

Those numbers coincide with declining birth rates and population.

According to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report, Whiteside County’s population has dipped 4.1 percent, or 2,380 people, since 2010, while Lee County lost 4.5 percent, or 1,625 residents.

Thanks to the size of the district, though, Sterling received $1 million more in state aid than expected for this school year – $13 million in all.

“It’s probably because the district retained its Tier 1 status from last year,” said Tim Schwingle, the district’s finance director.

Evidence-based funding rates schools on a scale of 1 to 4, with Tier 1 schools needing the most additional funds to bring them to the point to where they can adequately educate each student, based on those other factors, such as poverty and property tax revenue.

Sterling hasn’t decided what to do with the extra money yet, but in general, more money means schools can rehire teachers and counselors laid off because of budget constraints, reinstate programs and create new ones, and boost their reserve funds.

Dixon and Rock Falls also saw an increase in state funding.

Dixon pocketed $178,625.85 more, bringing its total to about $6 million, while Rock Falls High received $228,403 more, bringing its total to $3 million.

Funding isn’t the only thing enrollment affects, Rock Falls High Superintendent Ron McCord said.

“You also have to look at the 1 percent county sales tax. Less students means less families in the area to contribute to that fund,” McCord said.

Low enrollment also affects staffing, Dixon Assistant Superintendent Dan Rick said.

“We’ve lost 25 percent of our staff since 2008 due to budget cuts, but we’ve been able to recover some positions over time,” Rick said

Superintendent Margo Empen agreed.

“We saw an increase in our kindergarten class this year ... and were able to hire a new kindergarten teacher with the evidence-based funding,” Empen said.

U.S. Census figures show families are leaving the state, and the Sauk Valley: 83 of 102 counties lost people between July 2016 and ‘17.

Families are leaving the Sauk Valley for greener pastures, educators say.

“The ability to find and secure a job is the main factor in enrollment,” Empen said. When people leave the area it’s usually for a better job opportunity, and its the same for when people move here.

“I think it reinforces the need for the community to work together. We need to attract people and jobs to our community to keep enrollment steady.”

Birth rates also are playing a role:10,000 fewer babies were born in Illinois in 2016 that in 2010, Illinois Department of Public Health reports.

“Looking back 14 or so years, we saw a decrease in birth rates and knew there would be a decline coming,” Rick said.

Sterling’s enrollment, though, actually is up 42 students over last year, the only one of the three districts to see a gain.

“I think it’s an testament to our internal efforts,” Superintendent Tad Everett said. “We’ve been able to generally maintain our enrollment because of our district size. That includes the quality of staff, professional development and school resources that smaller districts may not have access to.”

He also cited a few external factors: “Great public and private education, health care with CGH [Medical Center] in our backyard, park systems, quality of life and location all factor into why Sterling is a desirable place to live.”

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