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Panel offers 'menu' of school savings 

 
Associated Press
June 28, 2012
John O'Connor

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon wants to offer public schools a "new menu" of cost-cutting and efficiency as a panel she led approved a plan Thursday that calls for education improvements.

Simon told The Associated Press that the Classrooms First Commission's plan, which now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, aims to let schools decide on consolidating, sharing services with other districts or taking other steps to improve achievement.

The report heavily encourages consolidation, given the state has more than 860 school districts — third most in the nation. But with fierce loyalty to the local school stymieing widespread mergers for decades, Simon said the panel wanted to provide other options as well.

"If we can hang on to the best of local control but get school districts to share a bookkeeper, to share a superintendent, to share buying of textbooks or health insurance, we'll get some of those same benefits that we would get out of wholesale consolidation," Simon said in her Capitol office. "What I'd like to set up here is a better menu for schools to choose from."

The panel set out to find ways to improve classroom achievement during a time of decreasing state funding, and suggests everything from developing a formula to identify districts that could benefit from consolidation to making it easier for ambitious students to move more quickly through high school and community college.

Five ideas relate to sharing services among districts and a centralized, online system for comparing prices with similar districts for transportation or food service. The commission said if each district saved 5 percent from that system, it would put an extra $1 billion into classrooms.

Many of the panel's ideas need legislative approval.

One even needs a constitutional amendment: Setting up a two-year budget cycle for schools so they can avoid the annual rite of laying off teachers in the spring, waiting for the state to adopt a budget and scrambling to rehire instructors in August.

The commission is dissolved with the report's completion, but Simon said the members are eager to lobby for adoption of its ideas. The group includes four legislators, a natural gateway for that effort.

Acknowledging its focus on making consolidation easier, the plan suggests doing away with current incentives for merging, led by a requirement that teacher and staff salaries and state aid be equalized among merging districts.

The commission found that with such incentives, it would cost the state more than $3 billion just to accomplish one of the more natural mergers — making "unit" districts out of elementary districts that feed into separate high school districts.Those incentives would be phased out by 2017 and replaced by inducements that "more accurately reflect the actual costs" of merging, according to the report.

Another proposal is to allow districts to approve consolidation but put off the effective date until they can get money from the state-subsidized school-construction program to build, for example, a centralized high school.

Many of the ideas would free districts of state restrictions. School boards, not the Legislature, would be able to opt out of many minor state requirements that don't come with state money. Currently, that applies just to mandates adopted after August 2010.

"What we're saying in this report is, how can we keep that sense of investment in schools but get the best of working together in terms of financial savings and opportunity for students," Simon said.

Online: http://www.ltgov.illinois.gov