Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Panel looks for alternatives to forced school consolidations

By Ashley Griffin

A state panel of education experts has released a set of recommendations that does not include forced consolidation of districts — a move that Gov. Quinn has advocated for.

The Classrooms First Commission, a panel that, along with education experts, includes lawmakers from both parties, released recommendations that favor “voluntary” consolidation and shared services between schools. According to the report its suggestions could save the state up to $1 billion.

 The recommendations come after Gov. Pat Quinn proposed consolidating many of the state’s school districts to save money. The group, known as the Classrooms First Commission, found that under current law, a move to consolidate Illinois’100 high-school-only districts with 377 elementary-only districts into 101 districts could cost the state nearly $4 billion. The $4 billion price tag comes from incentives the state must pay when combining districts. However, Quinn originally believed the plan would save more than $100 million.

 The report found that a more cost effective approach would be to eliminate or modify some state laws that discourage school districts from voluntarily consolidation. According to the report, at least 40 school districts were considering this option.

 “Forcing districts to merge is not realistic, but providing them the resources and tools to consolidate on a voluntary or virtual basis is well within reach,” state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a member of the Classrooms First Commission said in a prepared statement.

Under the new recommendations, no school would be forced to consolidate, but sharing school services is emphasized and encouraged. According to Lt. Gov. Shelia Simon, who chairs the commission, “this is about voluntary consolidation where it works and virtual consolidation where it can help.”

“We already have in Illinois 12 countywide school districts for the smallest counties, and I don’t want to tell those school districts to consolidate even more, I want those school districts to have the opportunity to work with neighboring school districts to share an advanced biology professor, to share a contract on purchasing textbooks, so that even though we're not asking them to consolidate, we're encouraging them to get the benefits,” said Simon.

The draft report recommends a variety of changes such as: phasing in lower tax rates for new unit districts, piloting a new capital project list that targets school construction money at districts willing to consolidate and requiring counties with declining school-age populations to determine whether a countywide consolidation or sharing services would help struggling schools perform better.

 “Shared services offer school districts the opportunity to provide more diverse curriculum options and expand educational opportunity, while streamlining delivery and saving money,” Jason Leahy, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association and a member of the Classrooms First Commission said in a prepared statement. “It is my hope that the Classrooms First Commission recommendations will point districts toward the tools and resources they need to accomplish this goal.”

Although for some schools, the idea of consolidation seems inevitable, Simon has acknowledge concerns that schools worry about losing identity and local control under consolidation.

“We held hearings across the state, and we definitely heard a lot of folks who talked about the importance of local control of schools. And what this set of draft recommendations does, it says we recognize that, we recognize the value of local control, but we also want to make sure that having a small locally controlled school district doesn’t mean you’re missing out on a higher level math course, or you’re missing out on the savings that can come from working together with another school district,” said Simon.

 The commission also plans to hold four statewide hearings to get feedback from the public on the new draft recommendations. Those hearings are scheduled on:

• 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.

 The final report is scheduled to be completed by July 1, when it will be submitted to Quinn and the General Assembly.


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