March 20, 2013
By Lauren Leone-Cross
Small school districts could more easily combine with other districts under a measure approved by an Illinois Senate committee Tuesday.
The bill, Senate Bill 1877, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker-Hill, would allow a school district with more than 5,000 residents but fewer than 750 students to consolidate with another district without a referendum — speeding up what is typically a time-consuming process, he said.
Only districts with fewer than 5,000 residents can dissolve now without referendums.
Just over 50 of Illinois’ 868 school districts would meet the new criteria. Another 330 districts qualify under the current law, according to figures provided by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon’s office.
Tying enrollment to districts’ options “is just a logical change we can make in the law,” Manar said.
“I see low-enrollment schools taking advantage of (the ability to consolidate),” said Bill Phillips, a former school superintendent and professor of educational leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield. “Because 750 students is a mid-sized district, you’ve just opened the door to a whole bunch of districts.”
A district would have to file a petition approved by the school board or by a majority of registered voters in order to dissolve.
Manar’s own district in Bunker Hill, with fewer than 750 students, would be subject to the legislation. Three of his children attend school there, he said.
The bill also would allow non-contiguous districts to consolidate, something only bordering districts can typically do now.
The non-bordering districts’ administrative offices would have to be within 30 miles of each other and all bordering districts would have to state they were not interested in consolidation.
That requirement ensures that districts do not “district shop,” or ignore poorer and lower-achieving bordering districts, Manar said.
Pawnee School Superintendent Gary Alexander said he doesn’t expect Manar’s plan, even if it is approved by the General Assembly and signed into law, to have much effect.
“I just think all the factors have to be weighed out. ... I don’t really see this being feasible just because of distance,” he said.
Though the Pawnee district has fewer than 750 students, Alexander said he doesn’t foresee the district consolidating with another district.
As long as consolidation remains voluntary, Phillips also said he doesn’t see many districts rushing to combine.
“It’s not going to be easy to drive your buses through somebody else’s school district for a new district that’s 20 miles away. I don’t see anybody breaking down the doors to do this,” he said.
‘Beyond the numbers’
Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011 proposed reducing the state’s 868 school districts to 300, saying it would save $100 million in salaries alone. However, an Illinois State Board of Education study found that merging Illinois’ high school-only and elementary-only districts would cost $3.7 billion over four years.
There’s also the issues of space, salaries, supplies, and whether or not communities can work well together, Alexander said.
“You have to look beyond the numbers,” he said.
Two area school districts, A-C Central and PORTA, are in the early stages of possible consolidation. If that merger happens, high school students would attend PORTA High School in Petersburg, while A-C Central’s Chandlerville Elementary School would close, for an annual estimated savings of $245,000 per year.