Several states have required that smaller school districts merge to save money. But an Illinois Commission finds that consolidation incurs its own costs.
Illinois, like other states, is struggling to finance its public schools with less money. But unlike many states, Illinois is not planning to force school consolidation. New recommendations from the Classrooms First Commission, headed by Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, leave open the option for school consolidation but suggest a range of alternatives, including various forms of resource sharing.
As Illinois is enduring a long-term and deep fiscal crisis, Classrooms First Commission was charged with addressing the problem of school funding. The commission’s recommendations came after months of research and discussion, with public hearings around the state on ways to deal with more efficient financing of the state’s 860 school districts, one of the highest numbers of districts in the country.
Unlike what has happened in other states, the Illinois commission did not advocate requiring the merger of school districts to save money, principally because, according to the commission, consolidation is itself an expensive process.
“Because of the large number of districts and their disparities in structure, size, and resources, mandatory consolidation has been proposed several times in Illinois in recent decades,” according to the report. “However, research shows that this approach is not likely to produce the large cost savings anticipated by proponents. Up-front costs are prohibitive in any mass consolidation scenario, including costs to merge faculty and staff, unify curriculum, modify facilities and schedules, reconfigure transportation, standardize textbooks and teaching materials, and consolidate back office operations.”
According to a 2010 article in the Journal of Research in Rural Education,
consolidation has been implemented in states as diverse as New York,
Iowa, Louisiana, West Virginia, Montana, Kentucky, and Arkansas. It
recently surfaced on the policy agendas of state legislatures in
Michigan, Vermont, and Maine.
The commission, originally called the School District Realignment and Consolidation Commission by the Illinois General Assembly, was given the charge of focusing on both student learning and operational efficiency. According to the preliminary report, commissioners adopted two key goals: improving educational opportunity and improving efficient use of educational resources.
According to the report, as the commission got into its work, it identified where barriers to realignment could be removed, allowing those districts where consolidation makes sense voluntarily to realign more easily. Based on its research, the commission also focused largely on two other key strategies: promoting the concept of “virtual consolidation” through shared educational and operational services, and providing individual districts with tools to increase both their efficiency and educational opportunities.
According to a press release from the state, the draft recommendations to promote voluntary consolidation at little or no new cost to the state include the following:
• allowing compact but not contiguous districts to consolidate; currently districts must be compact and contiguous;
• expanding the regional board of school trustees’ dissolution authority, by allowing local districts with under 750 enrollment to seek dissolution with or without a referendum; currently this is an option for districts serving communities with under 5,000 people;
• piloting a new capital project list that targets school construction money at districts that are willing to consolidate and need 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.
The commission began its work in September 2011. According to the report, the commission included broad representation, with educators, parents, and policymakers from rural, suburban and urban areas. A full copy of the 57-page report can be found here.
The commission plans to hold four statewide hearings to gather public opinion on the new draft recommendations. Those hearings are scheduled as follows:
• April 19th at Parkland College in Champaign.
• April 20th at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
• April 26th at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights.
• April 30th at Rock Valley College in Rockford.