Illinois has more than 850 school districts, and most of those stop at 8th grade, or serve only high school students. State Sen. Dan McConchie (R-Lake Zurich), has proposed legislation that would give such districts three years to merge to become “unit” districts — the kind that serve all grades.
“I actually have a K-8 district that feeds more than one high school district,” he says. “And some of the experts that I’ve talked to, when I tell them that, they just look at me kind of incredulously and say, ‘How do they even establish a curriculum appropriately?’ ”
Curriculum alignment is just one of the benefits McConchie sees in consolidation. He believes it would also save taxpayers money, by eliminating what he calls “redundancy” in school administration. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s bipartisan Property Tax Task Force, of which McConchie is a member, is considering a similar proposal based on that argument.
“Just looking at the overall administrative cost, on a per-pupil basis, it’s significantly less expensive for taxpayers when you have unit districts instead of dual districts,” he says.
School district superintendents, however, told the task force they don’t like the idea.
“All the school administrators got up there and essentially said no. But their only argument against this was: ‘This will be hard.’ Well, I’m sorry, but that is insufficient reason to not do what is the right thing,” McConchie says.
Consolidation could also boost equity, by encouraging districts to share resources, McConchie says. He points to two school districts just outside his Senate district — a K-12 (unit) district and a K-8 (elementary) district. The K-8 district has resisted consolidating with the adjacent unit district.
“The unit district is only able to afford to spend about $7,000 per student. The K-8 district happens to be small, happens to have a lot of commercial property in their area, and they spend over $32,000 per student,” McConchie says. “They’re right next door to each other. That’s just immoral — the fact that we have this kind of disparity.”
Various forms of statewide school district consolidation have been proposed before, to no avail. But McConchie predicts Pritzker could “fundamentally change the conversation” if he chooses to support a consolidation plan.