Friday, June 18, 2021

Small districts in IL study the consolidation idea


About 10 Illinois school districts near and around St Louis are conducting what amounts to a feasibility study to determine if it might serve students and school communities better if they join with neighboring districts, not only to centralize certain operations but also, at least in some cases, to change the way the state sends them money according to a per-pupil funding formula.

Consultant Jim Rosborg talked to Derik Holtmann of the Belleville News-Democrat about the study he will be working on for schools in Freeburg, Smithton, and St Libory:

Around Freeburg, Mr Rosborg told the News-Democrat, there are four separate boards of education: “You take St Libory [which serves only 87 students], the Freeburg Elementary, and the Smithton Elementary, and the Freeburg High School. … That consolidation is going to bring all those boards to where, instead of 28 board members, you’re going to have seven. Instead of four superintendents, you’re going to have one.”

He added that some of the little things—school colors, district mottos or slogans, and so on—also play to the emotions in a given community.

Illinois is unique among states in that not only does it have more than 850 independent school districts but it also has districts that overlap each other: some districts serve only K-8, others serve high school only, and others, known as “unit districts,” serve K-12. Although this setup can help keep corruption at a minimum, since no one board has all that much power, it also splinters communities and separates friends during their formative years.

If a student lives in a district served only by one elementary school district, the boundaries of that district aren’t necessarily the same as the boundaries for the different high school districts his school feeds. That means two kids who go to eighth grade at the same middle school could very easily be sent to high schools in two completely different districts.

But Illinois is also a leader when it comes to local control: It allows St Libory Elementary to have an average class size of between eight and 14 students. The 87 students at the school have a principal, a superintendent, a school board, and the power to ask voters in an election if they want to support a tax increase.

Unfortunately, because of this extreme local control, some districts like St Libory lose out when it comes to what has been one of the most dysfunctional (and unfulfilled) state school funding formulas in the nation for the past several years. If St Libory District 30 were to consolidate with, say, Freeburg Community High School District 77, which has just the one high school, the new district would become a unit district and the per-pupil funding formula would change (unit districts get more from the state and rely slightly less on local property taxes).

But that would also mean a centralization of operations, a likely reduction in staff at the central offices of both districts, a reduction in the number of board members, and the possibility that some students would be living in districts that feed different schools after the consolidation. In many communities, those are emotional questions as much as they are financial ones.

Now, the News-Democrat reported that St Libory has “no intention” of consolidating. “We believe we’re serving our students well,” the paper quoted St Libory Superintendent Thomas Rude as saying. “We’re in good financial shape. So there’s no real driving force to make us want to consolidate right now. It’d be different, I think, if we were scraping to get by, if our enrollment was in the 40s and everything we did was a challenge. But it’s just not right now.”

So I want to make clear, this report is about a study that’s being conducted. What would be the feasibility of consolidating smaller districts, especially K-8 and high school-only districts, into a single unit district? What would change? And does the community want those changes?

On the flip side of that comes a state like Maryland, our other home state, which has about two dozen, not several hundred, school districts in the entire state. But they’re not independent taxing authorities in that each school district depends on the county government for all its funding or, in the case of Baltimore City, the municipal government, which is independent of any county and functions, for all intents and purposes, as its own county.

This produces school districts with hundreds of schools where operations are hyper-centralized. That means some support staff is in the district office, not an office down the hall from your classrooms. It would take Illinois a long time to get to that point, but some states do it even bigger. The state of Hawaii, for instance, is just one school district. It’s about the 10th largest in the country, depending on how you count Puerto Rico, which is about the third-largest.

Other school districts in the study include O’Fallon, Shiloh, Brooklyn, Venice, and Madison. Only 109 students attend Venice Elementary, the paper reported, and only 11 percent of them met state standards on the PARCC tests. Those tests may be invalid for individual students, but across all the test-takers in a school or district, they paint a picture that’s worth adding to the argument. Could consolidation help? Would consolidation enable broader curricular and extracurricular supports for teachers and students?

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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