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Statewide commission backs off on forced consolidation 

 
Ottawa Times
April 27, 2012
By Melissa Garzanelli

Rutland and Wallace elementary schools have a lot in common. They share a superintendent, a music teacher, buses, special education staff and developmental preschool, as well as other personnel like a social worker and psychologist. They have sought bids for supplies and services together to get a better rate.

But what they haven't done — by mutual decision of both of their boards — is make any move toward consolidation.

Rutland and Wallace's arrangement is exactly what the Classroom First Commission is envisioning for the future of small, rural districts. Following two pushes last year to force consolidation among Illinois' 868 school districts to fewer than 300, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon put together a commission to study consolidation and make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly.

A draft of its initial recommendations was released last week, with the commission now seeking public input before putting together a final draft to present in July.

The recommendations take a different approach than last year's demands for consolidation. Instead, the commission asks that roadblocks be removed for districts interested in consolidation, that all districts look for ways to share resources and save money. It also points out consolidation is not an automatic cure-all for the state's economic woes since the cost of consolidation could be almost $4 billion and some of these small school districts are performing well financially and academically.

Instead, the recommendations point to the idea of virtual consolidation, finding ways to share resources to save money.

The recommendations are not binding but would be used at the discretion of lawmakers.

Jim Carlson, superintendent of the La Salle County Regional Office of Education, praised the recommendations overall.

His office has already taken similar steps to help its districts by forming a food cooperative, handling substitute teacher background checks, offering bus driver training and putting on workshops for staff development.

"Research has found forced consolidation does not work," Carlson said. "However, consolidation can work under the right circumstances. Consolidation is not good or bad. It's a choice."

He did, however, have a few concerns, one of them being a recommendation to give the boards of trustees for the ROEs more dissolution power. He wanted to be sure the power over school districts remains with local taxpayers and voters.

"I look at things that take democracy away from us," he said. "We want (voters) to have a voice."

A previous change to consolidation laws allowed Cornell High School and Flanagan Unit District to merge in 2008, one of the first mergers under that new law. For about 20 years, Cornell had been collecting taxes, then paying tuition and transportation costs to send its students to Flanagan because the law did not allow a merger between a high school district and a unit district. Cornell High had been forced to close its doors because it could not remain solvent.

These kinds of roadblocks should continue to be removed in order to encourage consolidation, according to the commission findings.

Mike Matteson, superintendent at Rutland and Wallace, was relieved to see the direction the commission went with its recommendations. In February, he presented his school boards some early findings from the commission that suggested it would single out small school districts to mandate mergers.

While his districts do share resources, his hands have been tied in some areas, like bidding health insurance together, which often resulted in Rutland paying much higher rates.

"I really like the whole idea of virtual consolidation," he said. "This says that consolidation should be on a case-by-case basis, and that's the way it should be."

Draft Recommendations

No districts would be forced to consolidate under the Classroom First Commission's draft recommendations, but the state would require counties with small and declining school-age populations to study whether county-wide consolidation or sharing services would save money and boost learning. Other draft recommendations include:
  • Allowing compact but not contiguous districts to consolidate; currently consolidating districts must be compact and contiguous.
  • Expanding the regional board of school trustees dissolution authority by allowing local districts with enrollment less than 750 to seek dissolution with or without a referendum; currently this is an option for districts serving communities with fewer than 5,000 people.
  • Piloting a new capital project list that targets school construction money at districts willing to consolidate and that are in need of new buildings, additions and/or building renovations.
  • Phasing in lower local tax rates for new unit districts; currently, elementary and high school districts become a lower, unit taxing district immediately after consolidating.
  • Requiring counties with small and declining school-age populations to conduct efficiency studies that could lead to shared services, district mergers or even county-wide districts; 12 counties currently have county-wide districts and another 16 counties have small and declining student populations, according to state and federal population projections through 2030.
  • Authorizing the Illinois State Board of Education to provide a Web-based resource management program to districts to help them identify up to $1 billion in instruction, transportation, food services, administration and facility maintenance savings.

To review the draft recommendations or to submit comments about them, visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.