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Small school districts tout cooperation, shun forced consolidations 

 

WJBC Radio
October 24, 2011
By Ryan Denham

NORMAL – Educators from smaller schools around Central Illinois told a statewide commission Monday that district consolidations should be a local choice on a case-by-case basis, and that they’re already finding cost-efficiencies by partnering with each other.

The Schools First Commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, held its second of four public hearings at Heartland Community College. The panel is studying how to improve student learning and efficiency. Its report is due to Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers next summer.

School consolidation took center stage during Monday’s hearing. Jean Anderson, regional school superintendent for Logan, Mason and Menard counties, told commission members about a consolidation study conducted by Lincoln Community High School Unit 404 and its four elementary feeder districts in 2007-08. A second study was needed after the first turned up inconclusive results.

That second study determined that a larger, more complex district would create additional – not reduced – administrative costs, a higher salary schedule and more employee benefits costs, Anderson said. The net cost increase for fiscal 2008 alone was going to be about $500,000, she said.

Though that study gave pause to consolidation efforts, it also suggested the creation of the Education Cooperation Committee in 2008. Anderson said the group has had strong success in joint purchasing agreements, sharing staff members, and combined professional development.

“When change results from school consolidation, it is often met with fear, frustration and resistance,” Anderson said. “However, when school change is brought about through open, honest discussion, sharing and respectful consideration by community members, for community members, it is a far better practice.

“In my region, we have seen it first-hand,” Anderson said.

Gerald Gordon, who identified himself as a teacher and field staffer for the Illinois Education Association, told the commission that he’s a longtime supporter of school consolidation. He said the quality of education suffers in smaller districts, which become cash-strapped due to transportation costs and other factors.

“I find it amazing that school districts of less than 100 students still exist in the state, at this time when we face such financial strain,” Gordon said.

Simon told WJBC earlier Monday that it’s important that the commission looks beyond school consolidation – forced or otherwise. She noted that District 87 technology director Jim Peterson spoke at the Normal hearing, sharing his experience developing IlliniCloud, a nonprofit cloud computer consortium that’s helping 150 school districts statewide.

“As someone from deep southern Illinois, I know there’s not such a thing as a one-size-fits-all solution in terms of how we best run our schools,” she  said.