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How Redistricting Changes Relationships Built Between Classrooms And The State Capitol

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Jodi Moore is in charge of a very small school district, Leland, and all 261 of their students. She also maneuvers a complex web of elected officials from the local level all the way up through state and federal government.

“We’re going to make our schools better! We need to improve education for our kids!” You hear it so often from candidates running for office. But it can be challenging for rural schools of Leland’s size to catch the ear of a lawmaker, so Moore says the superintendents in her region have learned to combine their voices.

“Those lawmakers have a group that they can question and check facts. They can ask, ‘Really, how is this affecting you on the ground level?’ And not expect one single answer because we have such a diverse county but get some different scenarios and some different feedback,” she said.

Coincidentally, they also have a group called VOICE that informs local school leaders on the latest in Springfield and what it could mean for their students.

Since not everyone goes to the legislature with an educator’s perspective, Moore says sometimes they have to teach. A few years ago, she met with a new representative for hours to break down how school funding works.

“I explained where our money actually comes from, and what special ed expenses are and what outside placement costs and what the reimbursement rate is and he's like, ‘I would never know any of this,’” she said.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ehren Jarrett is the superintendent of Rockford Public Schools -- one of the largest districts in Illinois.

He says they meet with their state representatives and senators twice a year, once during the legislative session and once after. Jarrett says it helps that their current representative, Maurice West, went to RPS and both he and state Sen. Steve Stadelman sit on education committees.

“There are two types of legislative conversations we have,” he said. “One is kind of proactive, pushing for improved policies and procedures, but a lot of what we do is very reactive.”

That typically means offering input on bills or so-called “unfunded mandates.”

Jarrett says cultivating these direct relationships pays off. District leaders worked with Sen. Stadelman to help with a plan that changed how Illinois handles Title I funding for schools with higher percentages of low-income students.

“With Sen. Stadelman's leadership and support from Sen. Syverson and some of our other local officials, we were able to get that passed,” he said. “That has literally meant millions of dollars of efficiency for Rockford public schools with the same dollars.”

His main objective is fighting for what Rockford students need, but he also has to acknowledge political realities and think broadly about education statewide. Right now, RPS is working with elected officials to give lower-income schools funding priority for facilities projects.

But even though they’re the third-largest school district in the state, they don’t interface a ton with federal lawmakers.

“We had a little bit more involvement with federal officials, particularly our Rep. [Cheri] Bustos this year talking about COVID relief funding and some of the policies associated with that,” said Jarrett.

Forrestville School District Superintendent Sheri Smith’s northern Illinois district is small. Her area’s education leaders have also consolidated their voices to have a say in Springfield. She says unfunded mandates are a topic that comes up a lot with lawmakers. She says mandates can often stretch her limited staff and budget.

“There are things that come in about curriculum. You know, we want a new implementation of curriculum. That's great as long as you have the people to do it. If that's going to require a new person or a new program or a new textbook adoption, then obviously that comes with money,” said Smith.

The other key issue is funding. Leland’s Jodi Moore says this year with COVID there was some anxiety that the $350 million of state education evidence-based funding wouldn’t all come through, which lawmakers did eventually approve. But it made many in education look back at the budget crisis.

“I think a lot of us were nervous. Because we know that's happened before when the state doesn't have the money,” she said.

Although COVID hasn’t meant more federal attention for schools like Leland and Forrestville, it has allowed more engagement locally.

Moore and her group of school leaders feel heard enough to email their state representative, Republican Tom Demmer, to talk about inconsistent school guidance on COVID testing and reporting.

“I happen to know Tom Demmer has a health administration background,” Moore said. “So, that's who I would send stuff to like, ‘Hey, you know, this is how this is impacting our families.”

And Moore’s learned that even if it’s more difficult for her small school to get in touch with state legislators -- putting an education issue within their context is helpful for them to understand it.

“Sometimes I think it's easier to wrap a person's mind around it when you're looking at a small district because everything is just so apparent. You know, here's our budget, this goes here, this goes here. This is what happens when we don't get this,” she said. “It's a small voice, but it's a very clear voice and a very clear way to look at an issue when you see how it plays out in a small district.”

The re-mapping process could mark the end of relationships some of these districts formed with their lawmakers over the past decade. The homework assignment now for school leaders is to prepare to build new bonds with politicians who will represent their students and staff for years to come.