Pantograph Editorial: Illinois needs to push harder for school consolidationMay 1, 2016
One of the maddening aspects of the state’s ongoing financial crisis is that some obvious long-term solutions are rarely considered.
As we’ve stated before, one solution to the massive tax collections by state and local government is to reduce the number of local governments. That includes school districts that have been slow to consolidate in ways that would save money and allow more money to flow into classrooms.
According to a recent research report by the Illinois Policy Institute, the state’s 859 school districts are ripe for consolidation. About 25 percent of them serve just one school. One-third of Illinois school districts serve fewer than 600 students.
Although the districts are small, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a layer of bureaucracy. Not only does every district have a superintendent, but many have assistant superintendents, transportation supervisors, human resource and business staffs and other positions that could be eliminated with more school consolidations.
When compared with other states that serve more than one million students, it’s clear the Illinois system is inefficient. Florida, which has taken school district consolidation to the extreme, has an average of more than 40,000 students per district. California and Texas have about 6,000 and 4,000 students per district, respectively. Illinois has 2,339 students per school district, on average.
The savings of district consolidation could be significant, in both administrative costs and future pension costs. The institute study looked closely at districts in the New Trier Township. This wealthy Chicago suburb is home to six elementary school districts that feed into a single high school district. Taxpayers pay for seven superintendents; the average salary of those seven is $280,000 per year. Taxpayers could save millions a year on superintendent salaries alone.
The savings would not be confined to just one district, however. Because taxpayers across the state pay into the educators’ pension system, reducing the number of administrators in this one district would save taxpayers $30 million over the next 30 years, said the study.
The institute estimates if the state cut the number of districts in half, putting the average district size still less than California, there would be district operating savings of between $130 million and $170 million annually. The costs in pensions would be between $3 billion and $4 billion over the next 30 years.
In other words, this is something that would save the state, and taxpayers, real money. There are obstacles to consolidation, including a concern about the loss of identity. However, in this case, consolidation is not a rural issue. In fact, some of the greatest targets for consolidation are in heavily-populated areas.
There is little doubt that consolidating school districts is politically difficult. But so is raising taxes and explaining to schools why they don’t receive the resources they expect from the state.
To escape from its current financial doldrums, Illinois government needs to fundamentally change and the size of government needs to be smaller. School district consolidation is one place where change is necessary.