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Editorial: Give districts option to merge 


The Telegraph
May 20, 2013

Sometimes, less is more. In the case of public school districts in Illinois, it would be grammatically correct to say that fewer is more, but the idea is the same.

Illinois has 879 school districts, more than almost any other state, with many of them serving small, rural communities. In recent years, some of these rural districts, in particular, have faced declining enrollments, and some have seen their tax bases erode as residents, businesses and industries left their areas.

In response, some school districts have considered merging to help solve their problems. The idea is similar to businesses that consolidate offices. Mergers could eliminate the need for two or more districts to have separate administrations and transportation systems. Potentially, such mergers could make the districts more efficient and save money for their taxpayers.

Now, legislation that would help the state’s public school districts carry out such mergers to cut costs is headed to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk.

The legislation, which was approved last week by the Illinois Senate on a 54-0 vote, was proposed by the Classrooms First Commission, headed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. The commission studied ways that school districts could save money by reducing duplicative practices and combining educational offerings.

While it seems logical for neighboring school districts to merge, the plan outlined in the legislation also would allow districts with boundaries that don’t touch to consolidate. It would allow small school districts to reorganize more quickly, and also would link the dates that high school districts could consolidate to the availability of construction funding from the state.

The Classrooms First Commission was made up of experts and people interested in education from pre-kindergarten through post-graduate schooling. It included teachers, administrators, parents and legislators.

Simon has said the legislation “will put our students — not bureaucracy — first.”

Unfortunately, the education bureaucracy in Illinois is politically powerful and sometimes resistant to change.

Just last year, Quinn proposed in his budget address that the state should reduce the number of public school districts to about 300. He said that by doing so, Illinois could save as much as $100 million in salaries for administrators, alone.

But largely because of the political muscle of educators’ unions, that idea went nowhere in the Illinois General Assembly last year.

One reason we like the approach proposed by the Classrooms First Commission is that it would not force school districts to merge if their communities don’t want to do so. The commission pointed out that even consolidation itself sometimes can be expensive, and there may be more cost-efficient options available to districts seeking to save money. These could include various forms of resource sharing, such as “virtual consolidation,” which would allow districts to share educational and operational services. Another idea would be to provide individual districts with tools to increase both their efficiency and educational opportunities.

We urge Quinn to sign the legislation and give Illinois’ school districts more flexibility in deciding whether mergers are the best way to deal with the challenges they face.