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Merging school districts expensive, study finds 

 
State Journal-Register
January 7, 2011
By Chris Wetterich

It would cost $3.7 billion over four years to merge all of Illinois’ high school-only and elementary-only school districts, according to an Illinois State Board of Education analysis.

The whopping cost to a state government already plagued by financial problems means forced consolidation is unlikely, said Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who heads the Classrooms First Commission, which is studying the issue.

School consolidation was an idea Gov. Pat Quinn threw out in his budget speech in 2011, suggesting it would save as much as $100 million by eliminating the salaries of superintendents and administrators in merged districts.

“There’s not going to be any one-size-fits-all solution to this question,” Simon said. “So I think the idea of just assuming all dual districts should be consolidated into unit districts … that’s not guaranteed to be an efficient thing.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ideas to make school districts more efficient, Simon said, and some of them could be part of the commission’s report, which is due in July.

Teacher salaries

The multibillion-dollar cost stems mainly from two factors. Merged school districts often have different pay scales, and when they merge, the state pays to make sure all teachers in the combined district are compensated based on the higher salary scale.

There are 100 high school-only districts in Illinois and 377 elementary-only districts. Combining them into 101 unit districts would affect nearly one out of every three children in the state. Funding the salary incentive alone over the required four-year period would cost $3.1 billion, according to the ISBE.

The state typically also pays districts $4,000 per certified staff member for up to three years. That would cost $611 million.

The ISBE could not estimate other costs, including the difference in general state aid of merged districts. The agency also could not estimate how much money would be saved by the merged districts.

Questionable savings

Marlene Brady, superintendent of the North Mac School District, the product of a 2010 merger of the Girard and Virden school districts, said the state ought to be kicking in even more money.

North Mac’s first year of consolidation cost $700,000 in start-up expenses, but the state paid only $267,000 to equalize salaries. Among other costs were buying new textbooks so the entire district could work off the same curriculum, new sports uniforms and replacing old mascots with new ones.

“You have to up the ante a little,” Brady said.

“In the long term, through attrition and other things, you will probably see a savings,” she said.

However, Brady said she told Simon, “if you’re going to do it, you don’t do it to save money -- you do it because of what you can offer your students.”

Rework the rules

Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, who serves on the commission, said Quinn’s expectations were unrealistic from the start.

“The entire proposal couldn’t have been well thought out,” Eddy said. “He also talked about cutting transportation grants. How in the world those two things support, logically, is beyond me. You’re going to end up with larger districts requiring more transportation.”

Eddy, who himself is the superintendent of the Hutsonville School District, said the state’s formula for providing financial aid to merging districts needs to be reworked.

“The rules under the current program dissuade districts from efficiency. We needed to look at that six or seven years ago,” Eddy said.

Quinn still sees consolidation as one way to free up dollars for the classroom, said his spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson.

“There is more than one way to get to heaven,” Anderson said. “In terms of the broader issue, some consolidation makes sense. When the governor mentioned it … he called for it because he believes the state, in these difficult times, will be better off with more resources in the classroom as opposed to bureaucracy and administration.”

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Other cost-saving ideas

Sharing services, allowing school districts to merge whose boundaries aren’t contiguous and “virtual consolidation” are other ideas a commission is looking at instead of forcing districts to merge.

The Classrooms First Commission has held eight meetings and heard from dozens of people through either oral or written testimony. Its report is expected to be delivered in July, said Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who heads the panel.

Some ideas so far include:

-- Allowing districts near each other to consolidate even if they aren’t next to each other. The Leepertown School District in Bureau, about 50 miles north of Peoria ,wanted to consolidate, but its neighboring districts weren’t interested.

“One neighbor that was close by but not touching the school district wanted to consider consolidation, and we don’t currently allow that,” Simon said.

Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said special legislation was passed to allow Leepertown to merge, but that it should be done on a case-by-case basis.

“We could have district shopping,” Eddy said. “You have to be really careful with that in some suburban areas.”

-- “Virtual consolidation” involves sharing services, and sometimes even classroom teachers, through the Internet.

“We heard testimony from neighboring high schools that are teaching a class into both high schools, one live and in person and the other live through online services, so that smaller schools, particularly those that don’t have access to the advanced biology teacher or the advanced math teacher, can still benefit from some of that curriculum,” Simon said. “

-- Districts could pool costs.

“One of the things we want to try and highlight is what are those opportunities where districts can join together for purchasing health insurance, textbooks, whatever kind of supplies are needed,” Simon said.

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Illinois school districts

--878 school districts

--100 high school-only districts, 16 with enrollments under 500

--377 elementary-only districts, 138 with enrollments under 500

--If all dual districts were consolidated into unit districts, it would affect 36 counties, 543,000 pre-K to 8th-grade students, and 253,000 high school students.