April 17, 2012
By Deborah Gertz Husar
A state commission studying education spending targets the consolidation of information and resources -- not districts -- as a way to save money.
Simply letting each district see how others are cutting costs and then studying whether to adopt the same approach could save $1 billion, the Classrooms First Commission claims in a draft report to be released today for public comment.
But the panel rejected Gov. Pat Quinn's idea requiring school districts to merge, with an "overwhelming consensus" that consolidation should be considered case-by-case.
Superintendent Lonny Lemon of the Quincy School District said he's glad to hear the forced consolidation issue has apparently been taken out of the equation.
"Everything I've heard is that forced consolidation is dead on arrival. I don't think that's going to happen," he said.
Lemon said forcing districts to consolidate was not a popular idea in this part of the state, where districts are separated by long distances and busing students farther would become even more problematic than it is already with the state falling behind in its transportation reimbursements.
"The consolidation idea was fraught with trouble," he said. "When you're busing people an hour already, it's going to be hard to force consolidation even more."
Lemon is open to the idea of having districts look for ways to work more closely together to see if they can find ways to reduce costs.
"The shared services is something I think districts will look to," he said. "In essence, we do that already with Pike County from the fact that we're already in a special ed coop with shared services, and we're in the West Central Region for vocational education as well."
Pikeland Superintendent Paula Hawley was pleased to see the commission's emphasis shift away from the "tough topic" of consolidation.
"Consolidation is never a pretty conversation no matter where it goes. It's so emotional and reaches so far," Hawley said. "Some studies have shown you don't necessarily save a lot of money."
Commission members acknowledge that many of the ideas they're presenting have been discussed without leading to any action. Still, they said the proposals could make a real difference in the cost of delivering education.
One draft recommendation is to use databases to compare spending in school districts, so administrators can see how other schools are successfully running on lean budgets. The commission said this approach cut costs 5 percent in an Ohio pilot project. If the same results were achieved statewide in Illinois, the savings could reach $1 billion, the panel reported.
"Where resources are thin, districts are looking for this information," said commission member Michael Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.
Camp Point Superintendent Martin Cook said Adams County districts also share information and resources.
"If a district next to us has a nice vocational program, instead of offering the same program, we'll offer a different variation," he said. "We're looking at ways to do that to keep offering curriculum. It's pretty expensive to add programs."
Mendon Superintendent Diane Robertson said districts have worked together on buying supplies and materials in bulk to save money and even on consolidating meetings to save on travel costs.
"I sat in on a couple of hearings last year where some of the legislators who are on the commission were talking, and this is the type of thing they were talking about," she said. "It was kind of surprising. These are things we have been doing for several years."
State government could help by making it easier and less expensive for districts to consolidate, the commission said. The state should also switch to a two-year budget cycle so that school administrators get a longer look at the funding picture.
Last fall, Quinn and lawmakers charged the bipartisan group with finding ways to be thriftier while improving educational results. That came after legislators rejected Quinn's call to merge the state's 868 districts into just 300, which he said would have saved about $100 million in administrative costs.
Schools have been spared deep cuts during Illinois' prolonged budget crisis. That could change this year, with the House and Senate considering reductions in Quinn's already-Spartan budget proposal. Many officials have taken up the call for "efficiencies" and "priorities" as a way to help schools make the most of the limited money available.
While rejecting forced consolidation of small districts, the commission does plan to encourage voluntary consolidation. It's calling for a new public works program to help build new schools for merged districts. It also proposes changes in state funding to make sure districts don't lose money by merging, as well as making it easier for regional trustees to dissolve tiny districts.
"What we found out is that you can't really force any district to consolidate," said commission member Linda Chapa LaVia, a Democratic state representative from Aurora. "Give them tools if they'd like to consolidate."
There are already 12 county-wide districts in Illinois and another 16 counties with small and declining student populations, according to state and federal population projections through 2030.
Cook said the commission "made the right call" in moving away from forced consolidation.
He said it doesn't make sense for his district, which covers 222 square miles, to consolidate and form an ever larger district at a time when state transportation funding is declining.
"I definitely support the idea of voluntary mergers, particularly of districts where it makes sense," he said. "If you're a district of 90 square miles and a district right next to you is 80 square miles, there's a lot of duplication of efforts. If you consolidate, you can cut down on those costs."
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who heads the commission, said another useful tool is "virtual consolidation" where districts with similar needs share resources, often through the Internet.
Technology offers wonderful opportunities but carries a price tag.
"Technology is expensive and constantly has to be updated," Hawley said. "You can't buy computers and leave them there 10 years. You have to constantly turn them over every three or four years to keep up, to make technology relevant and useful."
Staff Writer Edward Husar contributed to this story. Some information also was provided by the Associated Press.