State school superintendent foresees school consolidations

Andrew Thomason, Illinois Statehouse News

    Illinois Superintendent of Education Chris Koch says the state needs to consolidate school districts, a move that could save millions of dollars.

    “In this climate, over the past few years I’ve seen more and more inquiries about consolidation. And certainly it’s an important conversation to have. Our board, this summer and August, had during their retreat, a considerable look at consolidation,” Koch said during an interview with Illinois Farm Bureau Radio Network.

    His comments came a week after Gov. Pat Quinn delivered his budget address. Quinn’s office said that by eliminating about 500 districts from the current total of 868, the state could save $100 million by reducing administrative redundancies.

    As of now, changing a school district occurs on the local level, but Quinn’s office says its plan would involve legislation to force consolidations. Having the state direct school districts to do this might avoid a situation where residents agree with the concept, but don’t want it in their community, Koch said.

    “There are certainly examples of inefficiencies — we have neighboring districts that have built new schools serving the same population and neither one full. There are all sorts of examples throughout the state,” he said. “And I’ve had many local superintendents approaching in my four years in this job and say ‘you know we really need to do this but we can’t do it here, you’ve got to push it from the top.’”

    Legislators caution against using too broad of an approach. State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, created a task force to examine the topic before Quinn highlighted his plan.

    “The task force itself would work on what that would look like because, in the state of Illinois, one glove doesn’t fit the entire state. We have a lot of different needs and concerns as far as transportation time, but I’m going to be working with him,” Chapa LaVia said.

    She and Koch said there are places in the state’s education system where combining districts makes sense. One concern of Chapa LaVia’s is school administration payrolls.

    “When I look around the state and know that 274 superintendents make more money than the governor of the state of Illinois, and some of them make more than the president of the United States, there’s a problem with that if you’re a public servant and you’re making that much money. So we’ve gotten out of control on a lot of issues, I’m not specifically saying that’s the only issue. There are a lot of issues,” she said.

    Quinn, a Democrat, earned praise from the other side of the aisle for his proposal too. State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said he “applauded” the governor for bringing up such a sensitive subject.

    Eddy should know — he is the superintendent for the Hutsonville school district. Though Eddy said he wasn’t sure he could support the way Quinn is going about consolidation by appointing a commission to redraw district boundaries.

    “We need local input. The commission route where lines are drawn and there’s no vote, I really think has to be questioned, especially by (Quinn) who is a populist and likes referendums and voting. But at the same time maybe it is time for us to take a serious look at the number of school districts we have,” Eddy said.

    Smaller, rural school districts could likely be absorbed by larger ones. Figures from the 2010 census show populations in most rural counties dropping, but the opposite is true for counties that have major urban areas.

    This could have the opposite desired effect because many smaller districts rank higher on standardized testing while spending less per pupil when compared to their counterparts, according to Eddy.

    “Cost and student performance: if they meet those criteria, they should have the opportunity to show that and maybe left alone in those cases,” Eddy said.

    In the end, all districts will have to make changes as the state grapples with financial difficulties, according to Chapa LaVia.