Bigger isn’t always better. With schools, bigger is sometimes just bigger.
Whatever their size, communities are defined by people and buildings, plus institutions: churches and libraries, restaurants and tavern; few as vital as local schools. When schools vanish, towns can die.
So conversations in Springfield about consolidating school operations, get people’s attention as much as talk about taxes.
If voters ultimately weigh in on recommendations enabled by legislation considered in both housed of the General Assembly, it could be Need vs. Greed, as some could be tempted to sacrifice schools to save a few bucks in property taxes.
The number of Illinois’ school districts could be reduced by one-fifth under Senate Bill 1838, introduced in February by State Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park). In the House, House Bill 3053, sponsored by State Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), mirrors Cullerton’s measure but could cut the state’s 852 school districts by one-fourth. Both would create a School District Efficiency Commission of 20 educators who’d recommend the number of school districts, enrollment levels, and which districts to “reorganize.”
The commission supposedly would focus on reducing “unnecessary” costs, thereby lowering taxes, ideally. If at least 11 commissioners approve a recommendation, it would go to voters in affected school districts, proposals say.
“The new school-funding formula we passed two years ago will help us drive down taxes in our communities by funding schools the right way,” Cullerton said. “The next step is evaluating redundant services … to eliminate the bureaucratic and outdated organization of school districts.”
A peculiar political connection increases concerns already felt by classroom teachers, administrators and parents. Both measures are Democratic initiatives, but the idea’s backed by the ultra-conservative Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), which has lobbied for private schools and against teachers unions and taxation, generally. Despite opposition from school management groups and labor, Cullerton’s bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee 14-0 on March 12, and on April 12 was referred to the Assignments Committee. On March 28, the House bill unanimously passed the entire House 109-0 and on April 3 also moved to Assignments. On April 9, Sen. Cullerton became a co-sponsor of the House bill.
One senses that the fix is in – but why now? Many districts have endured years of funding that was inadequate, delayed, prorated or eliminated – forcing educators to get more creative to teach kids and pay bills. Schools already share costs through purchasing co-ops, and partnerships for health benefits, Special Ed. resources, etc. It’s hard not to suspect supporters’ ulterior motives: closing schools as a knee-jerk reaction to spending (no matter the increased miles and time for bus routes, layoffs and the loss of towns’ hubs), or cutting taxes no matter what reduced revenues would mean.
In most communities and neighborhoods, schools help establish local identity and pride, say superintendents, who also note that if efficiency is really the goal, it’s better to have local control than to compel districts to follow one-size-fits-all mandates from the Capitol.
Vincent Caruso, of the Democrats’ strange bedfellow for this scheme, IPI, claimed, “Consolidation of school districts strictly involves merging administrative bodies, not closing individual schools.”
Cullerton attacked local districts as being defensive.
“Most local districts are not going to want to do anything,” Cullerton said. “Anytime you start talking about pieces of people’s pie, they get very protective. So you’re going to find no matter how this hashes out, there are going to be people looking to say, ‘Don’t come after what I’ve got’.”
Despite such insults, consolidation critics don’t seem selfish or irrational. For instance, one superintendent said he’s curious how the state would decide what’s “the optimal amount of enrollment for a school district.”
Indeed, in my rural, 30-school-district area downstate, just 1 of the 10 largest districts has more than 40 percent of its students achieving at or above grade level. However, the three smallest school districts ALL have more than 40 percent of students achieving at or above grade level.
Maybe instead of consolidating schools, the state could decentralize districts into more manageable operations with smaller enrollments and class sizes, and more kids could walk to school and learn and fill communities with young pedestrians, bicyclists and neighbors enjoying towns that really live.
That would stress what a bargain schools are for taxpayers.
Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. Contact him at email@example.com. For archives, visit mayflyproductions.blogspot.com.