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Quinn's education cuts would add to schools' pain

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Governor Quinn presented what he called "Illinois' most difficult budget ever" Wednesday.

His proposed spending plan would fully fund the soaring costs of public employee pensions, but Quinn said that is only possible by cutting elsewhere, including a 4.7 percent reduction for education, following previous 12 percent cuts.

SEE: Quinn: `Most difficult` budget he's ever submitted for Illinois

Local officials across Illinois warned of teacher layoffs, program cuts and school closings. There's concern even in some traditionally better-off suburban districts.

After five years of state aid cutbacks, parents and teachers told FOX 32 News that the fat disappeared long ago. They've coped with a combination of local tax increases and layoffs.

After climbing to the top of a sledding hill in Westmont, Kristine Humphrey gave a gentle push that sent two of her three sons happily sliding all the way to the bottom. In the tube, unable to sit up on his own, was 5-year old Michael, born with cerebral palsy. She fears what may happen to special services for him at nearby Puffer Elementary if $400 million in statewide education cuts proposed by Governor Quinn take effect.

SEE: Typo in budget plan caps Illinois spending at $35K

"I have children that are very bright. We're trying very hard to keep him included," Humphrey says. "And all these cuts are making it harder to keep him included in a regular classroom."

An estimated two-thirds of Illinois school districts already face deficits, and have eliminated about 6,400 teaching jobs. The governor told the General Assembly the best way to avoid a new round of reductions would be to reduce, instead, the rapidly rising cost of retirement benefits for government employees. Unions called that unfair. Their solution includes public employees paying more for their benefits and higher taxes.

"We do think there is sense in looking at some corporate tax loopholes," says Dan Montgomery, President of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "We've got $2 billion of Illinois taxes flying out of Illinois every year for things like oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico."

Some of the parents on the sledding hill, though, did not favor higher taxes. They just want the politicians to stop cutting school funding.

"I think it's a bad idea to make cuts there," says Sam Zayed. "But I think the state needs to make cuts. So, I think the state should be able to find other areas to cut."

Quinn told lawmakers during his budget address that the cuts were difficult but the result of their failure to fix Illinois' $97 billion pension crisis. Making the annual payments on those public employee retirement funds -- close to $7 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1 -- is crowding out funding for other priorities, he said. And he warned that if they don't find a solution, within two years Illinois will spend more on pensions than education.

"As I said to you a year ago, our state cannot continue on this path," Quinn said.

According to a House staff analysis, Quinn's budget would cut about $80 million from higher education, $5.3 million from free breakfast and lunch programs for low-income kids and $150 million from the minimum per-pupil spending the state is supposed to provide school districts. That would mean districts would receive only about 82 percent of the per-pupil amount that state law says is needed to adequately fund a student's education.

Quinn maintained funding levels for early childhood education and the Illinois Monetary Award Program, or MAP grant program, which provides grants for low-income students to attend college.

Gaylord Gieseke, president of the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children, said the cuts would "further devastate school districts that are already under severe fiscal stress."

"Governor Quinn's budget proposal demonstrates that Illinois' fiscal crisis is far from over and that children, families, and communities continue to pay the price for a history of unwise fiscal decisions made by our elected officials," Gieseke said.

Illinois has the nation's most underfunded pensions, due to decades of lawmakers shorting or not making their annual payments.

The Legislature has considered proposals to fix the problem, including shifting more of the costs of teacher pensions to local school districts, asking employees to pay more and cutting or freezing cost of living adjustments for retirees. But lawmakers have been unable to reach an agreement.

Patrick Mogge, director of school and community relations for Elgin Area School District U-46, said the district won't know exactly what the impact will be until legislators pass a final budget the proposed cuts. But he said they come at a particularly bad time.

"The federal sequestration, coupled with the already reduced General State Aid for this year, and the current monies owed to us by the state, create a difficult mix," Mogge said.


Associated Press contributed to this report.

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