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Simon wants to make Ill. districts more efficient 


By Karen Hawkins
September 3, 2011
Associated Press

CHICAGO – Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon wants schools to know she isn't gunning for them.

Simon was recently appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn to lead a commission tasked with finding ways to cut school district administration costs and redirect funding back to students. The commission begins its work with an eye on the high number of districts in the state -- Illinois has about 870 districts, the third-highest number in the country behind the more populous states of California and Texas, officials say.

Quinn raised some hackles when he talked about school consolidation in this year's budget address, but Simon insists her effort isn't about cutting schools or reducing districts just for the sake of numbers. Her goals for the Classrooms First Commission are to make districts more efficient and schools better equipped to educate students.

The commission, whose work will begin with public hearings statewide, includes elected officials, teachers and representatives from school districts and boards. Its recommendations are due to Gov. Pat Quinn by July 1.

In an interview, Simon described the commission's work and mission to The Associated Press.

Q: How were you selected to head up the commission?

A: I asked for it. As a person from a not-too-big town (Carbondale) in southern Illinois, I understand the importance of schools-to-community identity, and I think I get that in a way that someone from a larger metropolitan area might not. I think that gives me an edge in understanding how challenging the discussion is going to be. A small town, there might be a central employer, there might be a central geographic feature, but often the thing that really connects people better than anything else is the school, and a high school in particular. Sporting events are occasions for community gathering, and you have to understand that and respect that role that schools play.

Q: How did this initiative come about?

A: The discussion started with the governor's budget address, where he mentioned school consolidation. And then a couple different ideas percolated through the legislative process ... and I think the conclusion was school consolidation, particularly the bigger picture of efficient use of public school dollars, is an important question that doesn't have a cookie cutter kind of answer, and we need to bring the stakeholders to the table.

Q: Is there anything in particular that made Gov. Quinn want to start this process?

A: I think often what launches the discussion is the high number of school districts that we have. I think that calls people's attention to a question of whether we're spending too much money on administration of schools and the dollars aren't getting as directly to the classrooms as we would like them to be. But that's the question and not the answer. It's a good starting point for discussion.

Q: How is the commission funded?

A: The only thing that's going to cost anything is reimbursing folks for travel to and from the hearing, and I don't know where that's going to come from. The staff is my staff. We're working with the state board of Ed, their staff as well, so the cost ought to be pretty darn small.

Q: Do you have a financial goal in mind?

A: No. In fact, sort of the opposite in terms of my discussions with people who are going to be serving on the commission. I have asked them to come with an open mind as to how we might get things done and with the goals of spending our dollars efficiently. If we can get to saving money, even better, and improving education.

Q: Is there a goal for a number of districts?

A: No. Because I think what we will we find if we look at this with an open mind is that some small districts could benefit from either consolidation or cooperative arrangements with other school districts. But I think we'll likely also find that some small districts are running efficiently and are providing good opportunities for their students.

Q: Are you expecting any pushback?

A: I'm expecting that, particularly because the word consolidation has been used so frequently in this conversation that many people will arrive with a defensive attitude. And that's one of the reasons I've been stressing an open-ended discussion. I want to make sure that people know that I'm not out to get the Wildcats or whatever else the mascot is.

For example, no one has said in all of this conversation -- and I've had a lot of conversations about school issues since being sworn in -- no one has once said we have too many schools in the state of Illinois. What we're talking about is administrative efficiency rather than just boiling down the number of districts just for numerical sake.

Q: Quinn has ordered the state to stop paying its 44 regional school superintendents and wants to convince lawmakers to pay them out of the money that corporations and partnerships pay instead of property tax. What role, if any, does the state's legal fight with the regional superintendents play in this?

A: One of the things that has to be addressed is what functions should be performed at what level. For example, regional school superintendents perform teacher certification. I think that's probably something that could be done at the state level, in the same way we license lawyers in one state-level office. So I think if we look function by function, we might in some cases say, this function could be performed by someone else either on a state or a local level.

Q: When can people expect to start seeing the changes?

A: We're ... going to reserve the right to fast-track some ideas. If it looks like there are some legislative changes that are just no brainers, we would like to start that into the legislative system in January. ... The public participation end of this is very significant to me. I think it's a great way to make sure we've got access to the best ideas.