April 17, 2012
By Fanna Haile-Selassie
ZEIGLER -- The governor formed the Illinois Classrooms First Commission last year to look at ways to make education dollars go further. The panel traveled across the state to hear from educators. Now, it's come up with recommendations for helping schools consolidate and save money.
Southern Illinois is filled with small school districts, ones that state officials say could be better managed if they were consolidated.
"Areas where we know, based on population, we can predict that this school district is moving toward some challenges that they haven't experienced before," explains Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon.
Therefore, Classrooms First Commission created a list of recommendations that could help encourage smaller school districts to share services.
Simon says, "What we're trying to do through this report is to look at some of the barriers to consolidation that the state currently puts in the way, and try and reduce those barriers so that districts who choose to consolidate can make that happen."
One of the recommendations was specifically tailored to schools like Zeigler-Royalton and Christopher, which are trying to consolidate but first need a new school.
"For example, we're not even on the school contraction list, Christopher is. They're on the 2009 list. Okay, they just awarded funds for 2004, and here it is 2012," explains Zeigler-Royalton Superintendent George Wilkerson.
The state would give higher priority of construction funding to schools who want to consolidate. It would also help consolidated schools that see an immediate decline in tax revenues through a five-year phase-out process.
"That gives the district a little bit more time to make those adjustments to operating as a district," says Simon.
If lawmakers pass the recommendations, all schools with small or declining enrollment would be required to look into consolidating, but will not be forced to merge.
"If you don't want to do it, don't do it. If you have to, go ahead. If you want to, go ahead," says Wilkerson. "I think that's what they're saying in this message."
If lawmakers pass the Commission's report, the five local counties that would be required to start feasibility studies for consolidation are Alexander, Perry, Pulaski, Saline, and Wayne. The commission is looking into how to help fund the studies if necessary.
These recommendations are still in the drafting stage. The commission hopes to get feedback on them and create a final report for lawmakers by July 1st. Members are holding a new round of hearings. The one in southern Illinois is set for this Friday in Carbondale at SIU's Health Center Auditorium. It is a two-hour hearing starting at 4:30 p.m.