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What Consolidation Means for Sub/Urban School Districts

Illinois has more than 8500 individual government entities – including a large number of community school districts, ranging from stand-alone elementary schools that feed into stand-alone high schools, or a completely centralized urban network of institutions.  This week, Chase Cavanaugh explores how the processes that play out in rural communities doesn’t necessarily apply in the cities.

In many states, schools are funded by local property taxes and placed under the administrative umbrella of a city or county school system. Illinois, by contrast, has districts that are largely tied to localities. NIU Senior Researcher Norman Walzer says creating an independent district is a way to go up against local property tax limits.

“It was an opportunity for the mayor or the council or whoever was doing it to expand a service that presumably residents were asking (for) and may have been needed in some way, but since they were up against these limits, the easier way was just to create a new district,” he said. 

In rural areas, these districts also create a sense of community pride and allow for education to be spread across distant communities. This, according to Walzer, creates inertia to consolidating into something more elegant.

“It’s a bit of an uphill push, unless you really have a crisis situation, or a situation which is just so obvious that things have changed,” he says.

Last week’s report presented two Whiteside County districts which did just that. Riverdale Elementary School was annexed by Rock Falls School District due to lack of revenue, while East Coloma and Nelson Elementary Schools saw they could also improve the classroom experience.

But how does that play out in more densely populated communities, such as Rockford?

“We have 13 districts. We also are the professional development arm of DeKalb ROE and McHenry ROE."

That’s Dr. Lori Fanello, Superintendent for the Winnebago-Boone Regional Office of Education, the fifth largest of its kind in Illinois. While Rockford Public Schools is her region’s largest educational unit, she says there are still small districts -- and commensurate resources -- spread across the suburbs.

“The larger districts have more layers of administration, so they’ll have someone for curriculum, they’ll have someone working on policies and procedures and making sure things are rolling out. They have HR people, while smaller districts don’t have access to those because they don’t have the funding for it,” she says.

Dr. Fanello says despite the difference in resources, the smaller Winnebago County districts -- such as Pecatonica Prairie Hill, and Hononegah -- have seen growth. Hononegah is also unique in that it’s the only high school in her area with feeder elementary schools. Fanello says finances are stable, and the schools have been able to cultivate experienced administrators.

“They are keeping their principals for a longer time, and it becomes more of a relationship builder with the families. I think that helps these small districts a lot,” she says. 

A rural freestanding high school like Rock Falls may seem like a more logical candidate for consolidation. It receives students from Rock Falls Elementary, East Coloma, and Montmorency. But regional superintendent Bob Sondgeroth says that’s financially infeasible because of a unit district’s cap on property tax.

“There’s a different amount they can tax property tax-wise. Nowadays there’s no way that any district can get by with less property tax money, because the way the state is, you never know what you’re going to get," he said.

The same patterns of growth can be seen in Boone County, with North Boone and Belvidere benefiting from a county facilities tax.

"They’ve had money flowing in over and above their property taxes and general state aid in order to do facilities work," she says.

As for Rockford Public Schools, they now have enough money for infrastructure work.

“Instead of having the gymateria that they used to have where everybody has their lunch in the gym and you can’t have gym classes for that big length of time. So Rockford’s building is basically to update, make things better," she says. 

This stable financial situation is but one contributor to these smaller districts not having a desire to consolidate.

Former Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon took a look at whether consolidation would save funds in the Hononegah system. Her report said feeder elementary schools moving into that district would result in a higher pay scale. Fanello says this would result in greater costs all around.

“At the state level, they also talked about if it takes more the first year, the state would offset it. The state doesn’t have the money now to do anything like that," she says. 

In other cases, districts have found sharing services more efficient than combining into a single district.

“It’s what they call the Hononegah nation, including South Beloit. They have the special ed co-op that works for all of them, so no one has to have just specific people,” she says. 

This also applies to academic staff.

“Let’s say we needed a Spanish teacher, and one district had a great one but they didn’t have enough students. Another one had interested students and no teacher. That teacher could go between two districts, and one district would just pay the other district for a portion of the salary," she explains. 

Overall, stable funding sources, sharing of services, and well-built community administrators have kept Winnebago and Boone County from considering any major schools consolidation. And for Fanello, that’s just fine.

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