Governor's school plans not welcome
When Gov. Pat Quinn addressed education in his budget address last month he mentioned a word that can strike fear in school administrators, teachers and parents — consolidation.
“While we have taken strong action to stabilize our budget, we are still in a tough fiscal situation. As a result, the spending reductions I am presenting today are tough, as well,” Quinn said.
“The difficult choices we make today will ensure that we are able to provide essential services to families and businesses across the state ... Illinois currently has 868 school districts, and our fiscal reality demands consolidation. I am proposing the formation of a commission that will review the number of school districts in our state. Consolidation lowers administrative overhead, improves efficiency and will save taxpayers $100 million.”
Metamora High School Superintendent Ken Maurer, Germantown Hills Superintendent James Dansart and Eureka Superintendent Randy Crump were asked for their views on what the governor is proposing.
Do not force it
Maurer said consolidation is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I’ve always been in favor of consolidation,” Maurer said.
But, even his support goes only so far. Maurer said he does not support the idea of “forced” consolidation. Maurer said he is taking a wait-and-see approach to the governor’s idea.
“We might end up with a bill but I doubt that it will include all of the governor’s criteria,” he said.
Maurer added, in his opinion, what the governor is proposing is not even feasible.
“I do not know where the governor got his information on saving $100 million but I question that,” he said.
Maurer said he expects Metamora will be a target if the governor pushes forward with his consolidation plans.
“We will be targeted. We are a high school district. We need to be a unit district for educational reasons — curriculum instruction and assessment mainly,” Maurer said.
“I would want to see a study to see what it would do to the cost. If it is cheaper, which I doubt, or if it costs around the same, then I would be very willing to move forward. If it costs considerably more, then we would need to make sure we had a corresponding improvement in the education of our students.
Maurer said three major questions stand out for consideration of consolidation.
The first, he said, is will it provide a better education?
“In terms of education, let’s use a restaurant analogy. A large restaurant with a large menu is no guarantee you will have a better meal,” Maurer said.
“Likewise, a bigger school does not mean a better education.
Second on Maurer’s list was will consolidation provide savings?
He said sometimes consolidation leads to short-term savings and higher long-term costs. Maurer said that how future finances will be impacted is an important consideration.
Third, he said, transportation issues have to be addressed.
“Right now we have kids on the bus for an hour,” he said. “You don’t want to go more than an hour.”
Finally, Maurer said, a very close eye needs to be kept on that $100 million figure Quinn threw out as savings.
“Quinn said it would save $100 million,” Maurer said. “I’d have to see a lot more on that.”
Guv has not a clue
James Dansart, superintendent of the Germantown Hills School District, said he is not preparing for consolidation.
“We have been making reductions over the past several years as a result of the state not coming through with revenue as promised,” he said.
“We are not preparing for consolidation at this time because we don’t believe the state has the revenue to make this happen in the way that currently would be required by law.”
Dansart added he does not believe Quinn understands how school districts operate on a daily basis and his agenda is being developed by some of his staff who also don’t understand school operations.
“I also do not think his proposal can possibly fly and still maintain adequate funding since they can’t pay their current obligations,” Dansart said.
Dansart thinks his district could be targeted for consolidation if the governor does pursue this course of action, because of its close proximity to other districts.
If targeted for consolidation, Dansart said it would be a problem.
“The most problematic issue would be funding and staffing. Combining staffs requires changes to contractual obligations and salary issues that the state will not be able to honor,” he said.
“Consolidation requires bringing all staff members’ salaries up to the salary of the high school district. This would be extremely costly since most elementary district salary schedules are considerably lower than high school districts. Since it is a state-driven initiative I would expect the state to foot the bill. I think it would be extremely unfair to put it on the backs of the taxpayers. All our families in the local districts currently pay a great deal of money in property taxes. I think some of the huge issues are loss of local control by taxpayers, salary and contractual obligations and loss of community identity.”
Dr. Randy Crump, Superintendent of the Eureka Community Unit School District, said he is not rushing to prepare for any consolidation effort the governor is contemplating.
However, Crump said, if the governor is serious about this, Eureka could be a target.
“If he plans to redistrict based on new school boundaries, it will affect all school districts including Eureka District 140,” he said.
“I need more information from the commission he is forming to study this issue before any action can be taken.”
Crump said there are more questions than answers now.
“For example, will the state continue to provide incentives to consolidate? How will tax rates be established for the new district? Will taxpayers have any input on where the buildings will be located?” are among the questions Crump said that need to be addressed.
Asked if consolidation would be problematic for Eureka, Crump said, several more questions come to mind.
“What buildings would be used? How far would students need to be transported? Which district would pay for any outstanding debt of the old district — the old or new district? How would the employees be reassigned to the new district?” Crump said.
Crump was sure of one thing — consolidation would come with costs.
“Depending upon the plan it could be (costly). Initially there are always hidden costs associated with consolidation,” Crump said.