Lead testing joins long list of unfunded mandates imposed on Illinois schools

Illinois Primary
Gov. Bruce Rauner answers questions from reporters in this March 2014 Herald-Whig file photo. Rauner passed new legislation on Monday that would require all elementary schools built before 1987 and day care facilities built before 2000 to test their lead for water. (AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles)
Andrew Nelles FRE
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 21, 2017 12:01 am Updated: Jan. 21, 2017 11:40 pm

QUINCY -- A new Illinois law will require elementary schools and day cares in the state to test their water supplies for lead contamination.

The measure, passed by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday, joins a lengthy list of unfunded mandates handed down to districts by state legislators, one of the many impacts of Illinois' unprecedented budget impasse.

"Like everybody else I, of course, want our kids to be safe," said Vicki Phillips, Brown County School District superintendent. "But it's another mandate that is not funded through the state."

In February 2016, Rauner backed legislation that, he and fellow supporters said, would have turned the discretion over to districts on certain mandates. However, as with similar Illinois House bills addressing unfunded mandates, the legislation was adjourned "session sine die," meaning adjourned for an indefinite period.

"It is the right thing to do, to look out for the safety and welfare of our students," said Roy Webb, Quincy Public Schools superintendent, "But it will all come out of the budget for something else."

The bill decrees "that school districts shall use surplus funds in the Fire Prevention and Safety Fund," which uses tax dollars rather than state funding. Tax dollars now account for 67.4 percent of education funding in Illinois. The state contributes less than 25 percent. The National Education Association ranked Illinois last in terms of education funding from the state government in 2015. However, Illinois ranks 18th in government revenue and fifth in gross state product.

In a 2015 report outlining its initiatives, education advocacy group Illinois Vision 20/20 noted the seemingly exponential expansion of mandates in recent years.

"There were 12 Unfunded Mandates imposed upon schools by Illinois Legislature (from) 1991-1999 and 132 between 2000-2014," the report reads.

The report also stated, although school funding rates have dropped below where they were in 2006, school districts had more than 100 mandates during the 2014-15 school year.

"We only have so much money," Webb said. "All unfunded mandates put stress on schools, and there are countless unfunded mandates in the state of Illinois."

Phillips said unfunded mandates tend to impose a financial worry, particularly when they have been passed into law but rules and regulations surrounding the measures have not been established.

"We can't implement anything until the rules are written and approved," Phillips said. "A lot of the strain comes from the not-knowing part. It could be taking away from something else that we could have purchased for the classroom."

While unfunded mandates remain a cause for concern for administrators across the state, passage of the lead testing mandate received bipartisan approval.

"I could see this topic having the political pull to be able to get emergency rule established," Phillips said.

Emergency rule would expedite establishing guidelines for the new mandate.

Pikeland Community School District would have two buildings applicable to the new legislation. The mandate states elementary schools built before 1987 must be tested before the end of the year, and day care facilities built before 2000 that serve children ages 6 six and younger must be tested.

"Our elementary will fall into the first tier, meaning it must be treated immediately," said Paula Hawley, Pikeland School District superintendent. "The elementary has sinks in all the classrooms, so we will test not only the water mains, but each sink as well. It's not a bad idea, but it will take some time."