January 6, 2011
By Christopher Wills
Merging the state's 800-plus school districts into a more manageable number could cost nearly $4 billion, according to a recent report that may kill any chance that a commission looking for ways to improve Illinois education will recommend a major consolidation.
Members of the Classrooms First Commission said they see little support for a sweeping consolidation of school districts, which Gov. Pat Quinn proposed last February as a way to save about $100 million. His idea to merge the state's 868 districts into just 300 was based on the potential savings that would come from reducing the number of school administrators.
But it didn't account for the financial incentives that state law promises to merging districts — primarily additional money for salaries.
"An across-the-board, one-size-fits-all, we're-going-to-force-you-to-consolidate proposal is not going to happen," said one commission member, Sen. Linda Holmes, D- Aurora.
The commission's leader, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, said the estimated cost "reinforces the idea that there's not a quick-and-easy money-saving solution" for the entire state. "If we did everything all at once, the cost would undoubtedly be prohibitive.
Lawmakers last year agreed to form the panel to review the governor's idea and other possible ways of increasing schools' efficiency and effectiveness.
It looked at a hypothetical consolidation — one that is smaller than Quinn's proposal — and calculated that it could cost state government at least $3.7 billion over four years. That assumes all of Illinois' individual high school districts and elementary districts are forced to merge into unit districts.
The full cost would be even higher because merging districts are also entitled to financial aid related to the schools' budgets and state aid, according to the report by commission member Linda Riley Mitchell, chief financial officer for the State Board of Education. Mitchell did not have the information needed to estimate those expenses.
The report found that if the state went solely to unit districts that governed both high schools and lower grades, the switch would merge 478 separate districts into just 101. Of those, 10 would have fewer than 1,000 students and 29 would have 10,000 or more.
Switching to unit districts isn't the only way to handle a broad consolidation plan, of course. Other options include merging all districts below a certain size or perhaps requiring individual schools to consolidate if they're small or outdated. But those approaches would carry large price tags of their own.
Commission member David Luechtefeld, a Republican state senator from Okawville, said that even if requiring consolidation were a good idea, Illinois simply doesn't have the money to pay those incentives — not when the state budget is "a disaster."
The commission, formally named the School District Realignment and Consolidation Commission, is supposed to issue draft recommendations around April and then make its final recommendations by July 1.
Its suggestions for improving schools could touch on a host of topics. Members said that even though a sweeping merger plan is unlikely, consolidation could still be on the agenda in smaller ways.
Districts that choose to merge might be given preference in qualifying for state construction money so they can update schools. In some cases, it might make sense for two small districts on opposite sides of a city to consolidate, so the state could allow districts to merge even if their borders don't touch.
Districts might also be allowed more freedom to share management and split costs without fully merging.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the Democratic governor looks forward to seeing the commission's recommendations but still wants to cut the number of Illinois school districts.
"The governor continues to be interested in a major consolidation initiative. That doesn't negate the fact that it won't be a one-size-fits-all approach," Anderson said.
Quinn's call last year to cut the number of school districts by nearly two-thirds did not explain the billions of dollars it would cost the state. Anderson denied that Quinn misled people or that he overlooked the cost.
"Just because it wasn't mentioned doesn't mean it wasn't accounted for," Anderson said.
Avoiding the huge costs while still requiring districts to merge could be done by changing the law. State government could declare that it would no longer help equalize the salaries of two merging districts. But that would generate even more local opposition to any merger proposal.
The commission's research found something of a split between educators and the general public on merging districts.
In an online survey, some form of mandatory merger — consolidating all districts in a county, for instance, or going entirely to unit districts — was favored by a 3-1 margin, the commission said. But testimony from principals and superintendents at the commission's hearings tended to support small districts.
Jonathan Goldman, a commission member representing the group Parent PAC, said districts may wind up being encouraged to evaluate the pros and cons of merging. They could also be given new incentives, along with information about other creative ways Illinois schools are saving money.
But that's a far cry from forcing districts to merge.
"I don't think anyone involved in the process is interested in looking at a forced consolidation scheme," Goldman said.