Friday, March 04, 2011

Lawmakers look at school consolidation

By Lauren N. Johnson

Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to consolidate many of the state’s 868 school districts received a positive reaction from some lawmakers. However, groups representing school superintendents, administrators and teachers oppose what they call a one-size-fits-all approach.

Quinn said his consolidation plan, which would potentially leave the state with about 300 districts, would save at least $100 million in administrative costs and put more teachers in Illinois classrooms. “We don't need as many folks at the top level,” Quinn said Wednesday. “We need folks on the front line, in teaching, imparting knowledge and making sure our kids get a 21st century education.”

In his address, Quinn also called for a study on how the mergers could occur. Senate Bill 1324, sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, would require a study to find potential areas where the state could save money through consolidations.

In the House, however, Rep. Robert Rita, a Blue Island Democrat, sponsored legislation that would completely dissolve all school districts and boards of education except for the Chicago school system and create a board that would take over new districts — one per county — within 60 days. House Bill 1886, he said, would be a starting point to address inefficiencies. Rita said he has received some push back and is currently speaking with school superintendents and administrators, unions and advocacy groups about the matter.

Some say the decision on whether to consolidate should be made by local residents rather than state government. “We’ve always been open to the idea and encouraging [school districts] if they believe it would produce money, an educational product and opportunity for their kids,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, “but we believe those decisions would be made at the local level.” Clark said consolidation could cause emotional and psychological distress on districts as result of pay scale differences among administrators and a loss of the integrity of individual schools.

If the state forces consolidation of districts, Clark said backlash from the local-level could hurt the chances of the so-called cost-saving measure. Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago, who also favors consolidations, said local school districts need concrete incentives for possible mergers. “We’re definitely for school consolidation, and we think we’ve got a way to make it work,” Cullerton said in a written statement. He added that one hurdle might be debt incurred by school districts because one district might not want to take on another's debt — and potentially higher property taxes that could follow.

Clark said some incentives for school districts include improved facilities, particularly for high schools, to encourage global education within classrooms. He added that providing transportation for students “can get pretty pricey,” and expanding the distance that students would need to be driven places a burden on schools that would be required to consolidate. “I don’t think reducing transportation funding when you’re reducing the amount of school districts could be considered a connected issue. It’s pretty disconnected.”


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