Last year, we raised the alarm (again) about the unfair TRS Federal Funds Rate. It proved a tough issue for school districts to plan around. Should they hire certified teachers to improve student outcomes, but pay a nearly 40% pension surcharge on those federally funded dollars? Or, should they purchase educational materials that might not have the biggest impact on students but would avoid the pension surcharge, giving them more bang for their buck? Creative accounting is not supposed to be in the job description for school leaders, but the federal funds rate put them in that position.
Last summer, after years of difficult decisions and budgetary jiu-jitsu for school district leaders, education advocates’ hard work paid off when Springfield passed and enacted a law that returned an additional $80 million annually to the classrooms of underserved students. By removing the pension surcharge, districts are now empowered to make decisions in the best interests of their students, not their bottom line.
One district has taken this new budget freedom and made the most of it: Rockford Public Schools. As one of the largest districts in the state, Rockford spent about $2 million annually on the pension surcharge, despite budgeting to minimize salaries coming from federal funds. Now, with the law changed and no need for budget gimmicks, the district is taking action.
Rockford freed up more than $1.7 million in funding after the law was enacted. Major staffing changes will occur next year, as schools are able to plan for the lower federal funds rate. That means the district will increase full-time equivalents by about 20 in FY19. Not only that, but the district has already seen important changes including increasing tutoring hours from about 35,000 to 50,000 and increasing schoolwide training for Reading Horizons and the MAP test.
The district also expanded parent outreach and increased professional development training for its personnel. Each one of these moves will strengthen the classrooms and schools of their students from underserved communities.
Rockford has seen solid individual improvements for students at the elementary level as well, including at Kishwaukee School, where a teacher has been able to devote extra hours after school to twice-weekly guitar lessons for fourth and fifth graders. Another teacher at Lathrop School has been teaching 2nd-5th graders how to play the violin. The additional funds allow her to practice weekly with her students after school for as much as 45 mins. Music education is so important for language development, creativity, and more.
At the secondary level, students in an after-school program at Guilford HS asked for sewing machines to learn basic sewing. After students learned on four machines, one of the students attended a sophomore site visit. He observed a manufacturing machine and said, “I could learn that,” based on his understanding of the sewing machine. Who knows, this student could now be on his way to a bright career in engineering.
Furthermore, the Jefferson engineering club was able to extend after school hours this year. Among the club’s activities: designing blades for drones with a 3D printer and then assembling, testing, and flying them. Jefferson also added a second, 2-week art studio session this summer. The sessions run from 9am to 3pm and allow students to work on their portfolios. Finally, West and Kennedy Middle Schools were able to purchase a series of teenage novels for use in book discussions and their book clubs.
These are just a few examples, from one school district, of the positive outcomes stemming from this change in state law. There are many more stories just like them. But the reason we wanted to highlight Rockford in particular is because Rockford’s superintendent, Dr. Ehren Jarrett, deserves major credit for moving this issue into the public eye. It’s not easy to get legislators, media, and everyday people to understand this incredibly complicated issue, but Dr. Jarrett was a relentless advocate. Without his persistence and partnership, we might still be looking at a 40% surcharge into the foreseeable future. And this is just the beginning, as the benefit from this change in law means $80 million annually for classrooms for underserved students, to say nothing of the increased funding flowing from the state budget and new school funding formula.
We will continue to monitor these positive outcomes. Stay tuned for more reports on stories from across the state!