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Illinois school leaders tell Simon, no forced consolidation 

Moline Dispatch/Rock Island Argus
November 2, 2011
By Eric Timmons

Administrators from several local schools told a state commission Wednesday that they don't want the state to force them to consolidate their districts.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and her Classrooms First Commission listened to school officials at Black Hawk College on Thursday as part of a statewide tour to find ideas to run school districts more efficiently.

"With the way the state has not funded our mandated programs, with the lack of transportation reimbursements, with the whole issue around payment to schools, I'd say we are awful darn efficient," said Ryan Grimm, superintendent of West Central School District in Biggsville.

"We don't need a commission, we don't need a task force and we don't need to be told what to do -- we're doing it."

Earlier this year, Gov. Pat Quinn announced a plan that would force mergers of hundreds of school districts to save an estimated $100 million. The 20-member Classrooms First Commission was formed in the spring after the governor's plan was announced.

Led by Lt. Gov. Simon, the commission has been asked to recommend ways school districts can improve education and reduce administration costs for schools. They must report their findings by July 1 to Gov. Quinn and the general assembly.

The commission listened to school officials for almost two hours on Wednesday. A recurring message was that school districts want to keep as much local control as possible over decisions that have an impact in the classroom.

School administrators who spoke Thursday said consolidation often did not generate the anticipated savings. Transportation is one of the biggest problems, they said, with students often required to spend hours on buses to get to class.

"Two inefficient school districts combined do not necessarily make one efficient school district," said Annawan School District Superintendent Joe Buresh. "We feel that consolidation should be a local control issue."

Smaller school districts already are creating efficiencies by using virtual learning programs and pooling together to buy supplies and health insurance.

Hampton School District Superintendent Tom Berg said he doubles up as both superintendent and elementary school principal and has a connection with students and parents not found in larger districts.

"If you go to a large district you are not going to find the superintendent on the playground before school and you may not find him at all," he said.

Schools on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities have been losing students to Iowa for years, said United Township Superintendent Jay Morrow.

"We've seen a mass exodus of students going to the Iowa side for many reasons, much of that has to do with the property tax rate," he said.

An increase in property tax exemptions and tax increment financing districts had put "upward pressure" on property tax rates in Illinois, he said.

He would like to see a statewide sales tax for education like the one implemented in Iowa put in place instead of a local-option tax. Counties in Illinois can adopt a local sales tax for schools through a referendum. Voters in Rock Island County rejected a 1 percent sales tax for schools in 2009.

"I would like the legislature to consider implementing that on a statewide basis, much as Iowa as done, because what Iowa saw was a division of haves and have nots," Mr. Morrow said. "The division grew greater as the counties with large retail areas where getting a great deal of that money, whereas the rural areas where not."

Lt. Gov. Simon met with the editorial board of The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus before Wednesday's forum. She wants to listen to ideas to improve schools as she traveled the state before making conclusions.

"Particularly I wanted to steer away from the idea of consolidation as by itself an answer," she said. "Let's do what we can to get to more opportunity for students and greater efficiency; sometimes that's going to be consolidation, and sometimes that's going to be be working together across district lines."

The Classrooms First Commission includes representatives from the Illinois School Boards Association, teachers unions and rural and urban school districts.