One of the quirks of Illinois public education is the fact that public elementary, middle, and high schools in a single city or county may be their own independent school district.
While some tout the advantages of greater local control, others argue this governing structure is inefficient. In the first of a two-part series, we examine the ways these separate entities may consolidate, starting with rural schools.
Educational districts are but one type of the 8,500 government entities that make up the state of Illinois. They may exist for a variety of purposes, but NIU Senior Research Scholar Norman Walzer says the main reason is specialization.
"They can basically have those specific services without all those other services the city would provide," he says.
For schools, he says it also comes down to revenue.
"Many of the small independent special districts don’t really have many revenue sources other than property taxes," he said, "so if you create a new district of some type to provide a service, they wouldn’t have access to the sales tax, the income tax, or maybe not even a user charge. The more of these things you add, the more likely you’re going to inflate the property tax."
For rural communities, separate educational districts are a logical option when neighboring institutions -- such as middle and high schools -- are too distant to lump them under a centralized system. As a result, there’s significant inertia opposing an alternative.
“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.
In the case of the former, we have Riverdale School District in Whiteside County. It voluntarily dissolved five years ago because, after exhausting its reserves, as it had no other way to raise money.
"We only had three and a half square miles to tax so, even if you raised the tax rate, it wouldn’t do you much good," said Sarah Willey, retired superintendent of the former Riverdale School District.
Willey says that, unlike most consolidations, her district didn’t put the measure on a referendum -- mostly because, even if they held a vote to raise funds, it wouldn’t be enough. So she went to the school board of Rock Falls Elementary School.
"There’s a provision in the law if you’re under a certain number of voters in your district, you can make the decision to dissolve independently of asking the voters," she said, "so they (the board) decided to pursue that option."
The districts held public meetings for two years before the Rock Falls School Board voted to annex Riverdale. Rock Falls Supt. Dan Arickx believes this change is one of many reasons the transition went so well.
"Through sports and the fact that we weren’t a big town, it made it a lot easier for the kids and the families because a lot of the families know each other," he said.
The district was also able to avoid additional building costs by making Riverdale’s building the district preschool.
While this merger was the result of economic necessity, another occurring around the same time didn’t have such dire portents.
"Feeding into Rock Falls High School, there used to be Nelson Elementary School in Nelson, Ill., which is actually in Lee County," said Bob Sondgeroth, superintendent of the Lee-Ogle-Whiteside Educational Service Region. "They border East Coloma Elementary, which is in Whiteside County. They’re about four miles to five miles apart."
Sondgeroth’s office oversaw both consolidations. In this instance, both districts were contiguous so the regional team contacted an outside firm to do financial analysis.
“They put together a presentation for the school boards," he said, "and the school boards look at that and decide, yes, I can see the benefits of consolidation, so we can at least talk about consolidation."
Both schools were kindergarten through eighth grade, but Nelson had 36 students compared to East Coloma’s 220, as well as fewer classrooms and less revenue. The boards felt consolidation would expand the revenue base and provide Nelson students a better classroom experience. Once the school boards decided to consolidate, Sondgeroth’s office discussed the details in public hearings.
“…where the money’s going in each district, what the taxes are in each district and what kind of shape the buildings are in, how many teachers they have, what grades do they teach,” he said.
Referendums to combine the schools passed in both districts, ensuring a smooth transition. Sondgeroth credits the lack of dissent with bringing in the outside firm early and quickly talking with both schools. East Coloma Supt. David Chavira says this also wasn’t their first consolidation.
"The hardest animal to kill is the school mascot, so what they did was they consolidated for athletics around five years prior to the consolidation," he says.
In these two cases, consolidation financially benefited all involved districts. However, Sondgeroth says the argument for savings doesn’t always apply.
“If everybody could fit into the Rock Falls Elementary District, and East Coloma and Nelson would close their buildings, then yes, you would probably see some financial gain," he said, "but that would be offset by putting on an addition, putting in a new building to house those extra students coming in."
And that argument will continue to be made, particularly with state financing in flux.